No arguing the timeliness of 'Voir Dire'

March 14, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Shortly after intermission in Joe Sutton's courtroom drama, "Voir Dire," one of the cast of six sequestered jurors asks: "Are we still talking about the facts of the case? Or are we just talking about the politics?"

That, as this frustrated juror contends, is the crux of the jury's deadlock, and it's also the crux of Sutton's play. Receiving its area premiere in a compellingly acted production at Washington's Arena Stage, "Voir Dire" puts the American jury system on trial.

And, though the script -- especially the first act -- could be tighter, the play's timeliness and shrewd characterizations make the cynical 1990s successor to Reginald Rose's 1956 play, "Twelve Angry Men."

The timeliness is so apparent that it may come as a surprise to discover that "Voir Dire" -- the title, from the old French for "to speak truly," is the legal term for the jury selection process -- was written before the O.J. Simpson trials put the "race card" in public consciousness.

Granted, the play's unseen defendant, though also a prominent black man -- a New York city school principal -- is hardly a public figure in Simpson's league. And his alleged crime -- possession of two vials of crack cocaine -- is a mere misdemeanor, punishable by a fine and suspended sentence. But when two of the six jurors begin interpreting the evidence in terms of race, the specter of Simpson looms large. (And so, inevitably in a Washington production, does the cocaine conviction of Mayor Marion Barry.)

The strongest element of Sutton's debate-laden script is the realism of its six characters -- the number impaneled in New York criminal misdemeanor trials -- most of whom seem determined to turn the deliberations into a personality clash instead of a search for justice.

At the start of the deliberations, Phyllis Yvonne Stickney's Debra, a woman who counsels teen-age girls, appears to be the voice of reason, the peace-maker of the group. But as the action continues, her responsibility to her race seems to outweigh her responsibility to the truth -- a painful dilemma most of her fellow jurors cannot understand.

Gloria, her chief support, is an aggressive, black leather-jacketed feminist, who spars with the only male juror from the get-go. Robin Weigert's Gloria is a charged mass of bristling energy; she is as incapable of sitting still as she is of letting anyone else, particularly the male juror, complete a sentence.

Steve Cell portrays this out-numbered male as a modern man eager to do what he knows is right -- to be decent and respectful and above all, do his duty to the legal system. After the treatment he receives from Gloria, he might even evoke sympathy if he weren't so cocky and arrogant.

Of the remaining jurors, Miranda Kent gives a prim portrayal of a Nebraska native whose intelligence is tempered by a strong dose of naivete. And Tana Hicken delivers an on-target portrait of a New Yawk-speaking businesswoman whose big-city ways conceal their own brand of provincial insulation. "Don't we live in the same country?" she asks, long after everyone else has acknowledged the answer.

Finally, as the jury's token Hispanic, a young mother with a

stomach condition aggravated by these proceedings, soft-spoken Vanessa Aspillaga unleashes a quiet poignance and power that prove an eye-opener to the other jurors as well as to the audience.

Under Gordon Edelstein's direction, this co-production with New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre makes Sutton's detailed characterizations gleam. But this is not a play that lends itself gracefully to Arena's in-the-round Fichangler Stage; you're overly conscious of the actors spinning in their swivel chairs when they aren't jumping up and prowling around.

"Voir Dire" has been widely produced since its debut in Seattle two years ago -- a situation probably influenced as much by timeliness as by the merits of the script, which is, for all of its well-observed personalities and issues, occasionally over-written and slow-going. But then, topicality could keep this dramatization of the racial divide fresh for a long time to come.

Courtroom drama

Where: Arena Stage, Sixth Street and Maine Avenue, S.W., Washington

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; selected matinees 2: 30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays and noon Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Through April 13

Tickets: $21-$42

Call: (202) 488-3300

Pub Date: 3/14/97

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