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Reginald Rose’s jury room drama Twelve Angry Men—a teleplay, a stage play, a Sidney Lumet-directed, Henry Fonda-starring feature film, and then and for decades now, a stage play again—takes the sanguine view that if just 8.33 percent of the jury in a criminal trial is cautious and skeptical, our system will not allow an innocent person to be convicted of a crime. That one conscientious skeptic—Fonda in the movie, Dexter’s Erik King here—is the persuader who does what the accused’s court-appointed counsel did not, patiently peeling apart and examining the incongruities of the government’s sloppy case. My own memory of serving on a jury in a criminal case in 2003 was mainly that we were pressured not to deliver one verdict or the other, but rather to bring in a verdict quickly. The inability of some jurors to divorce the circumstances of the case from their lived experience is an element of Rose’s script that remains true-to-life and compelling.
The version on offer at Ford’s Theatre is confusing on a few fronts: chiefly, the time period in which it is supposed to be set. It lops off the judge’s instructions to the jury, but otherwise mostly retains the 1950s speech of the classic Lumet film I was made to watch in high school civics class, and some of the actors—a mix of D.C. stage veterans (Eric Hissom, Craig Wallace, Lawrence Redmond, Michael Russotto) and fresh faces—have a more natural command of it than others. But they wear contemporary clothes, and oh yes, six of them are now men of color. (It’s strongly suggested that the accused is, too.) In director Sheldon Epps’ most notable choice, by which I mean the one that most invites dissection, the jurors, identified only by their numbers, are won over almost directly along racial lines.
The insertion of an intermission, which scrambles the suspense generated by telling the story in real time, causes the play to lose some tension. It also means stopping the first act and starting the second on an awkward jury room brawl tableau that looks like the Iwo Jima Memorial. The war-drums soundtrack stinger that announces the start of each act is mercifully brief, but seems to signal an artifact from the 1980s, not the 1950s. Updating Twelve Angry Men every generation or so would be a worthy notion, but this fuzzy-period take makes a unanimous verdict elusive.
To Feb. 19 at 511 10th St. NW. $25–$62. (202) 347-4833. fords.org.