BWW Reviews: TWELVE ANGRY MEN a Spirited Send-off for American Century Theater
If you're quick on your feet, over the next two weekends-until August 8-you'll be able to witness something rare: the spirited close to a theater company's 20-year existence. The American Century Theater's tenure as the DC area's advocate for neglected 20th century American drama comes to a close with a revival of one of their signature productions, the authorized stage version of Reginald Rose's classic Twelve Angry Men.
Jack Marshall, TACT's founding (and closing) Artistic Director directs a solid cast in this legal drama, which plays out in taut, edge-of-your seat real time. Set in a jury room in New York City in the 1950's, we see twelve white men contending over the fate of a young, unnamed man of color, accused of murdering his father. The first vote goes 11-1 for conviction (and, in those days, almost certain execution). Only one man, identified simply as Juror 8, has his doubts. Over the course of one hour and 45 minutes, you watch as his doubts begin to take hold on the other eleven men at the table in a stiflingly hot, smoke-filled room.
A note for audiences - the jurors are nameless, they are only given numbers; this is how it's done. But when seated, with the Jury Foreman at the head of the table (Foreman = #1); the rest are identified by their position at the table. And even though you get to know them as numbers at first, you will soon see how Reginald Rose has given each a very specific identity.
What makes this production even more compelling is the fact that the issues raised by this play-about our legal system, about the way society stacks the deck against the young and underprivileged-remain maddeningly relevant today. Even more relevant as the Innocence Project works to exonerate numerous inmates, like the young man here, sentenced to death row. If we want to understand how easily innocent young men can be executed, you need look no further than the Gunston Theatre Two stage, where twelve fictional jurors exhibit the full range of resentment, bigotry and resignation that reigns in society to this day.
Steve Lebens is hauntingly brilliant as Juror 8, the lone holdout; at first he seems to be the only person in the room burdened by the responsibility of sending a young man to his death. Stoic, soft-spoken but firm, Lebens balances his own doubts about the young man's character with his need for certainty in order to convict. Lebens' substantial stage chops are matched, point for point, by Michael Replogle as Juror 3, whose passion to convict masks the reality that he himself could just as easily have been the murder victim. Meanwhile as Juror 3, David Jourdan gives us every inch of the average white bigot whose attitudes (to him) seem so self-evident that the possibility of being wrong never occurs to him. Bruce Alan Rauscher, as Juror 7, provides the comic relief, and Marshall gives Rauscher full rein to ad-lib the occasional insult or off-hand remark, in a vain attempt to keep things light (after all, he's got a Yankees game to go to).
The strength of this production lies in the uniform talents on display-space allows me to only mention a few of the cast members here, but each of them takes full advantage of the lines Rose has written for them. Marshall has ensured that we see twelve individuals; each Juror gives us, in word, posture, gesture, a glimpse of the lives they have led before thrust into that room.
Rip Claasen has given us a broad cross-section of American male dress from the 1950's, right down to the suspenders and ties that seem to reflect the characters who wear them. Marc Allan Wright's lighting provides the right amount of glare, and although the tight focus on the table leads to a Juror or two stepping off into shadow at times, the claustrophobia of the jury room remains. Eleanor Gomberg, meanwhile, has assembled the requisite pieces of evidence-and a water cooler (the provenance of which leads to a fun anecdote from Marshall in the program).
Legal hounds out there will appreciate playwright Reginald Rose's precision; Juror 8 stresses over and over again that the kid may have committed the crime, but that the evidence ranged against him is doubtful. And as the evening progresses, we see how a seemingly iron-clad case can, on further consideration, melt away to the point where nobody can defend it -even the most die-hard, hang-em-high conservative.
This final production also sees a reunion of sorts, with several in the cast returning to the play after 21 years and playing different roles. Sadly, a number of the original cast members from TACT's premiere production in the 90's are no longer with us, among them Bart Whiteman, founder of the Source Theater and a colorful figure whose passion for the stage lives on in so many of us.
When a theatre company folds up its tent, there are many lessons to be learned - I would refer readers to Joel Markowitz's interview with Jack Marshall, which is out there in the ether somewhere. The time for lessons-learned and theatrical autopsies, however, is not now; now is for the living stage, and you really need to see this gem of a show, and a gem of a company, before it vanishes.
Production Photo: From left: Steve Lebens as Juror #8, Mike Replogle as Juror #83, Evan Crump as Juror #5. Photo by Johannes Markus
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes without intermission
Performances of Twelve Angry Men are at Gunston Theatre Two, 2700 S. Lang Street, Arlington, VA. Tickets can be ordered online through: www.americancentury.org or by calling 703-998-4555.