“12 Angry Jurors” @ Westminster Community Playhouse
Director Jim Rice puts a different spin on the ’50s classic
By Eric Marchese
Theater lovers everywhere know “12 Angry Men,” the acclaimed 1950s legal drama which follows the heated deliberations in a jury room after a murder trial. Director Jim Rice brings all the tension and plot twists for the revival at Westminster Community Playhouse but also aims to dissect the dynamics of gender roles and the modern-day justice system.
Reginald Rose first wrote the script for “12 Angry Men” as a teleplay for the “Studio One” anthology television series, which aired live on CBS on September 20, 1954. A year later, he adapted his script for the stage, and when Henry Fonda expressed interest in producing it as a film, Rose tweaked his script yet again.
The story has been known worldwide ever since. Some have seen it on stage. Millions more have seen the 1957 movie starring Fonda as Juror No. 8, the lone juror who votes “not guilty” from the start and uses logic, reason and facts in a valiant attempt to sway other jurors from voting guilty to allowing for a reasonable doubt.
A 1997 film remake starred Jack Lemmon as Juror No. 8 and Mykelti Williamson as the loudmouthed Juror No. 10, who, driven by bigotry and visceral, seething bitterness, opposes Juror No. 8 almost from start to finish.
If you've ever wondered how the dynamics in the jury room would change in “12 Angry Men” if some of the combative jurors were women, then you need to see Westminster Community Playhouse's upcoming production.
Jim Rice is directing the classic, using the “12 Angry Jurors” version, which is playwright and author Sherman L. Sergel’s 1983 adaptation of Rose’s original “Studio One” teleplay.
If you look around for other mixed-gender stagings that have appeared throughout the U.S. over the years, you will be hard pressed to find one wherein the heroic Juror No. 8 and the rude, blustering Juror No. 10 are portrayed by women – an obvious oversight that motivated Rice to helming the play in Westminster.
“I have long wanted to do a version with No. 8 and No. 10 as women,” Rice says. “I find the social dynamic of women standing up to a room of men timely and fascinating.”
Rice said he’s aware of other theaters having cast various combinations of men and women jurors, “but not with this specific casting configuration.”
Rice said he “looked a bit in the foreword material in the script, and it says if you’re going to use women, get the ‘12 Angry Women’ script – or do whatever you want to do.” He indeed did so, but reading it generated qualms: “My concern was that because the adaptation was from the ’80s, it had a little bit of a dated sense of what women would do in the same situation as men.”
He ultimately decided that sticking with the original was the best approach and casting the best actors for each role regardless of their gender. Because of this, he auditioned men and women for each of the 12 roles.
“I knew what I wanted, but, going in, I didn’t know if I’d get what I was looking for.”
Rose London is cast in the crucial role of Juror No. 8 – the Fonda role. Rice said London “absolutely nailed it in the audition, so it was a no-brainer. She has the perfect combination of instinct and talent.”
Tara G. Brown is cast as the vitriolic Juror No. 10 (Ed Begley in the movie version). Noting that Brown is “an actress of color,” Rice said he was inspired by the casting of Williamson in the 1997 TV movie version.
Rice has also cast a woman, Alexandra Lohman, as Juror No. 12, the advertising agency executive (Robert Webber in the 1957 film version) who toggles between “guilty” and “not guilty” depending on which way the jury room wind is blowing.
“I don’t see any reason,” Rice said, “why women can’t have the same feelings and express them in the same way as men without being dated or any of the characters being intentionally tailored to be women.”
Helping bridge the gender gap, and to avoid having audiences view the play as a period piece, Rice is setting the story and characters in the present day. A good example of this is having Lohman as Juror No. 12 (since so many more women have careers in advertising now than in the ’50s).
Rice said that mixed gender casting aside, two factors drew him to directing the show: the play’s overall message and “the examination of the jury process.”
The greatest challenge Rice said he faced was “keeping performances honest and away from any stereotypes or caricatures.” Such pitfalls are “very easy traps to fall into” that “keep the audience from embracing the story and characters.”
What can WCT’s audiences expect? “For me the great takeaway is the importance of standing true to one’s ideals and conscience. Juror No. 8 isn’t sure the defendant is not guilty – but is sure that time must be taken before executing someone. It is that struggle, hard as it might be, that is worthwhile.”
Eric Marchese has written about numerous subjects over more than 37 years as a freelance and staff journalist for a wide variety of publications, but is best known as a critic, feature writer and news reporter covering theater and the arts throughout Orange County and beyond.
‘12 Angry Jurors’
Westminster Community Playhouse
7272 Maple St., Westminster, CA 92683
November 4 - November 20, 2022
(714) 893-8626, www.wcpstage.com