What a way for a theatre company to say farewell. Returning, twenty years later, to the play that first brought them into the world, American Century Theater sets the example for bowing out with grace and passion with Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men.
Artistic director Jack Marshall steps in to direct his company’s swan song. In the program notes, he claims the debut production back in 1995 can be credited with restoring Twelve Angry Men to popularity, after it languished for decades in the form of a poorly-adapted stage version. It makes a great deal of sense, therefore, for ACT to return to this show, to solidify that claim by proving the story’s contemporary relevance and power, and prove the company’s mission of “promot[ing] 20th-century theater as a vital part of our cultural dialogue” fulfilled.
It is indeed hard to imagine, after seeing this production, that it was once considered the sole province of high school classrooms, largely unpalatable to broader audiences both for its outdated idealism and for its impolitic lack of anyone but white men in the character roster.
If you are most familiar with Twelve Angry Men from the Henry Fonda black-and-white version or any of its many references in pop culture (such as Amy Schumer’s most recently), you’ll find that Marshall’s version has more thrust, humor, and complexity than you remember.
To sum it up briefly: in 1956, twelve jurors are tasked with deciding the verdict in a murder case. The jurors are all white; the defendant is not, and the evidence is piled high against him. Eleven jurors vote guilty right away; one, Juror 8, holds out. It does not seem right to him to send someone to the electric chair without at least talking about it a little. And so they talk about it, and the seemingly simple case starts to unravel – as do the seemingly simple personalities of the jurors.
In additional notes provided to the press, Marshall asserts that it is important to keep the play in the era it was written for and with the original white-men-only casting. (As Twelve Angry Jurors, the play has often been cast with women; the 1997 Jack Lemmon version featured multiple non-white actors.) He makes the argument that the gender of the characters influences the emotional tenor of the tale. I, myself, don’t buy that – you can make your own decision about whether the twelve jurors could be just as angry if some were women – but I do think the play resonates now, here, given all the news headlines of 2015 and recent years, with particular strength and critical insight with all white men. It reads, in some ways, as both an exploration of, and an indictment of, the ways in which our existing power structure can either fail or succeed at delivering justice – and, most importantly, why and how.
Juror 8, played probingly and with an almost apologetically unwavering sense of morality by Steve Lebens, is clearly the hero of the piece, but even he, in Marshall’s taut and natural direction, does not come across as necessarily central, nor perfectly admirable. His violations of jury law (such as introducing outside evidence) come across as questionable actions on his part instead of mistakes in the script; one might even wonder if his motivations are less than totally selfless. The other eleven jurors around him all seem like case studies in the potential issues with trial by jury, especially when the jury is comprised of society’s most powerful.
This is not the only lens to look at this tale through, but the positions of some of the less powerful characters – working-class Jurors 5 and 6, elderly Juror 9, European immigrant Juror 11 – stand out in this light. While it is thrilling to watch characters’ relative power in the jury room shift back and forth from an entertainment perspective, it is also extremely revealing. Every single juror has different reasons for their voting habits, reasons embedded in who they are as people and citizens, and all are worth examining.
TWELVE ANGRY MEN
July 17 – August 8
American Century Theater
Gunston Arts Center
2700 S. Lang Street
1 hour, 45 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $20 – $45
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
The jury room on Marshall’s stage feels like a living organism, with the direction, acting, and design all coming together to create a real sense of place; it’s all organic, and never showy. I’m loath to single out any of the other cast members besides the aforementioned Lebens, because if I name one, I really ought to name them all. They’re excellent, every one of them, and never play a false note or doodle an out-of-character doodle on their notepads.
Go ahead and pick any one to watch at any given moment, and you’ll get a different facet of the story of the American judicial system. Is this juror standing up to vote non-guilty because he has had his mind changed, or because he no longer wants to be seen as meek? Is that juror changing his stance for the opposite reason, out of mere conformity? Can you pick out which of them have changed their votes for honest reasons by play’s end, and which out of personal agendas – and what does that makeup suggest, good or bad, about the final verdict?
American Century Theater have done themselves proud, both in this production and its entire, now finalized, production history. They, and Rose’s Twelve Angry Men, have a great deal to say about important subjects, and say it well. And – lest I have made it sound like a purely intellectual exercise – they say it in a way that surprises, moves, and even makes you laugh, which is, in the end, the best way to do it.
Twelve Angry Men by Reginal Rose . Directed by Jack Marshall . Featuring Craig Miller, Steve Ferry, Michael Replogle, Joe Cronin, Evan Crump, Michael Sherman, Bruce Alan Rauscher, Steve Lebens, Lyle Blake Smithers, David Jourdan, Brian Crane, and John Tweel . Assistants to Jack Marshall: Tom Fuller and by Quinn Anderson . Production manager and Sound design: Ed Moser . Set design: Mike deBlois . Props design: Eleanor Gomberg . Lighting design: Marc Allan Wright . Costume design: Rip Claassen, with Catherine Casino as wardrobe mistress . Stage manager: Lindsey E. Moore . the final production from American Century Theater . Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman.