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“I don’t particularly like doing the same show [again], especially if you get it right the first time,” says Jack Marshall, founding artistic director of the American Century Theater. Considering this is his fourth time directing Twelve Angry Men, he explains, “This play is an exception.”
Marshall directed this play about a jury deliberation for the board of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America when he worked there decades ago. That performance planted the seed for the creation of the American Century Theater. Twelve Angry Men became the company’s debut production back in 1994. (Bob Mondello wrote the Washington City Paper review.) Now, it’ll be TACT’s final show before the company closes after 20 seasons.
“We’re going to send [American Century Theater] out in style,” says actor Bruce Rauscher, who was in the original production and plays Juror 7 in this final show.
In the mid-’90s, the now-iconic play fit into the company’s mission: to focus on forgotten works of American playwrights from the 20th century. “If a show was likely to be put on by other people, we weren’t going to do it,” says Marshall. “We wanted to show how much wonderful stuff is rotting in libraries.”
But was Twelve Angry Men really off decomposing somewhere in 1994, nearly a half-century after the 1957 film adaptation?
But the movie is just one interpretation of the Reginald Rose teleplay, explains Steve Lebens, who plays the juror who sets off the debate by casting the sole “not guilty” vote in today’s production. “The movie was constrained by the fact that Henry Fonda was such a star. On stage, it’s not all about one character,” Lebens says.
“The only stage version you could license [in 1994] was a watered-down version, which I learned the hard way when I paid licensing and then saw the script. I was horrified,” says Marshall. The American Century Theater ultimately transcribed the original teleplay for its own version.
Marshall points to the popularity of live productions of Twelve Angry Men—and the popularity of parodies, like the recent “Twelve Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer”—as signs that the company has succeeded in casting new light on old theater. “It was a mission show when we did it, and now we’ve accomplished that mission,” he says.
This final production features five actors from the original 1994 performance. For the rest of the cast, Marshall hand-picked a core group of American Century Theater veterans in the first show the company has produced without an audition process.
“All of us have worked with some of us,” says Lebens, who has regularly performed with TACT for seven years. The play involves lots of shouting (these 12 men are angry, remember) and overlapping dialogue. “Actors have carte blanche to ad lib extensively,” says Marshall. “The rehearsals were more like jazz practices, with everyone trying out all sorts of rhythms.”
Because this is TACT’s final production, some rehearsals were bittersweet. “I was a bit bummed,” Rauscher says. “My initial reaction was, ‘Well, I’ll never work in this town again.’”
“It’s admirable to shut down when things are going well, but I’m not quite sure I fully understand why that decision was made,” says Brian Crane, who plays Juror 11 and had his first TACT performance in 2004. “I’m sorry to see it go.”
“I gave it 20 years to see if someone wanted to take the reins or find a mysterious rich person, and it didn’t happen,” Marshall says. “With Arlington County moving away from its support of the arts and the aging of core staff, it got harder. Even though we’re doing some of our best work now, it’s better to go out in a blaze of glory.”
Twelve Angry Men plays from July 17 through August 8 at Gunston Theatre Two. Tickets are available here.
Photos by Johannes Markus