Voir Dire

People's Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern, through Oct. 13 ([610] 647-1900).

You can't ask for a play more filled with inflammatory topicality than Joe Sutton's Voir Dire, an understandably hot play on the regional theater circuit, being given its local premiere at People's Light & Theatre under the direction of Ceal Phelan.

The first thing we see are potential jurors being grilled by the offstage voices of attorneys in a condensed version of "voir dire," the process of jury selection. Each is led through a series of seemingly irrelevant questions, until they are asked the crucial one: "Can you be fair?"

"Voir dire" roughly translates as "truthful speaking." And the rest of the play tests whether these particular jurors did speak truthfully when they each stated "I can be fair"; whether they can and do speak truthfully to one another when they deliberate in the jury room; and, as a result, whether the entire judicial system can ever, in these crazy times, be fair.

The case these 12 angry jurors are trying in a New York City courtroom pushes all their, and our, post-Rodney King and post-(oh, would it were post)-O.J. Simpson buttons. A black high school principal, who may (or may not) be a drug addict, may (or may not) have been observed buying (or not buying) vials of crack in a stakeout by police officers. These officers may (or may not) be racist, and they may (or may not) be framing the alleged perpetrator.

This isn't Rashomon; the play doesn't raise metaphysical issues about whether there is such a thing as a fact, whether the real story ever can be known, etc., etc. Instead, the play asks us to look at the things we all bring to the table when we decide what we can and do believe about the world and about one another.

As they sit, caged in their jury room (surrounded, in James F. Pyne's wonderful setting, on three sides by the audience, and on all four sides by half walls), the jurors argue, believing or dismissing the evidence based on whether or not they feel the witnesses are prejudiced. In doing so, they reveal to each other that the opinions they themselves have formed about the witnesses are similarly prejudiced -- by racism, by anti-racist indignation, by a blanket distrust of the police, or by other cultural or political agendas. And as they interrupt and dismiss and patronize one another, they reveal that the opinions they have formed about one another are just as prejudiced and therefore equally invalid.

There's the obnoxious feminist (Mary Elizabeth Scallen), the executive-on-the-rise with the outer-borough accent (Marcia Saunders), the Midwesterner making her start in publishing (Susan McKey), the taciturn Latina (Juanita Vega), the black professional (Cathy Simpson), and the white guy who can't help being patronizing, even when he is being profusely apologetic (Peter DeLaurier).

I'm not at all comfortable applying such reductive categories to the dramatis personae of the play. But the play leaves me little choice.

And that's the problem. Whether by accident or by design, the play forces us to make the same mistakes about the characters that they make about the witnesses in the case and about one another. As we watch them form dubious and non-disinterested opinions about the evidence, the witnesses, and about one another, we find ourselves forming similarly reductive and similarly suspect opinions about them.

Phelan and her six actors do their best to flesh out these characters, to make them real people rather than stereotypes. If they fail, it's not from want of trying; you can practically smell how hard some of them are working (particularly Scallen and DeLaurier, who certainly have their work cut out for them).

But the writing ultimately defeats them. The characters all hold interesting positions. And, particularly in a scene in the second act, when they all take off their shoes and hammer out principles, the playwright uses them as mouthpieces for some fascinating ideas, which he weaves together with skill. But rarely (perhaps on only two occasions, with Scallen's and Simpson's characters late in the play), are they ever given an opportunity to act on their convictions, to make a life-defining or life-changing decision. And only in these moments can the actors let us see what their characters do, rather than merely showing us who their characters are.

So don't ask me to pass a verdict. No, I can't be fair. I can't, I won't, decide whether the actors are guilty.

I admit it: I can't get rid of my nagging suspicion that the playwright framed them.

-- Cary M. Mazer