It’s a classic play, more than 60 years old, but Sandy Spring Theatre Group (SSTG) opens a new production of Reginald Rose’s noir courtroom drama “12 Angry Men” at The Arts Barn in Gaithersburg on Jan. 6.
“One of the marvelous things is the story itself is timeless,” said Bill Spitz, director of the play and SSTG president. “The things that are happening in this play mirror real life.”
The show, originally performed live on television in 1954 and made into a film starring Henry Fonda in 1957, is still relevant. In an attempt to reach consensus about the guilt or innocence of a teenage boy accused of killing his father, 12 male jurors must face, or refuse to acknowledge, their prejudices–prejudices still influencing society today. Juror 11, for example, is a naturalized U.S. citizen who faces the wrath of a fellow juror who starts his opinion with, “…you people.” Juror 5, who grew up in the same tenements as the defendant, must listen to fellow jurors’ assumptions about his values.
Bob Schwartz plays Juror 10, loud and pushy, determined to get the jury to agree on a vote of guilty so he can get back to work. “It’s about having preconceptions,” Schwartz said, noting that the jurors present those preconceptions as they argue their reasons for the young man’s guilt or innocence.
“The basic story is of people having personal struggles and having it color their thinking,” Spitz explained.
The defendant is an unnamed character in the play as is everyone else. Even the jurors are referred to only by their jury numbers. Spitz said he thinks that is because the drama is dialogue-driven and viewers do not need extraneous details to draw away their attention.
The principle of no distractions extends to the set; both acts of the play take place in a spare jury room in 1950s New York City. “That was a deliberate decision to go with a sparse set,” Spitz said. “Traditionally, this [production] is done with a sparse set, and because from my perspective as director, this show is entirely script- and actor-driven. I want the audience to focus on what’s going on on stage.”
The show opens with a voiceover as the judge is giving the jury its instructions. Their decision must be determined beyond a reasonable doubt. The jurors enter the room quietly, settling in, each selecting a place at a rectangular wooden table on which sit 12 tablets of paper and 12 pencils. A side table holds glasses and a few pitchers of water; the deliberations take place in an un-air-conditioned room on a hot day. (Remember, it is the 1950s). One small fan helps blow the hot air around.
While none of the characters is identified by name, each has a distinct personality. As those personalities expand and contract, sometimes explosively, a unanimous decision is reached.
Audience members, it is hoped, will go home to their own deliberations on their prejudices.
SSTG has been in existence since 1949, Spitz said, originally an adjunct of the Sherwood High School PTA. The group put on plays as PTA program fundraisers. “It worked so well that after a few years of doing that, the group went out on its own,” he said. SSTG, he added, has no home theater of its own, but has been associated with the Arts Barn for about 15 years.
“[Sandy Spring Theatre Group] puts on a great product,” said Laura Andruski, theatre program director for the Arts Barn. “‘12 Angry Men’ seemed very timely.”
Sandy Spring Theatre Group presents “12 Angry Men” Jan. 6 to 22 at the Arts Barn, 311 Kent Square Road, Gaithersburg. Shows start at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20, $12 for ages 14 and younger. Call 301-258-6394 or email email@example.com. The production is recommended for ages 12 and older. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.