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Applied Physics Lab employees produce 'Twelve Angry Men'

Inside the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, a fight is brewing.

Seated around a large conference table are 12 people who cannot reach an agreement. They are engineers and scientists, discussing theories and analyzing every fact and detail inside the lab's Parsons Auditorium. As the temperature inside the room rises, so do the tempers — especially for John O'Brien and Betse Lyons.

"You want to see this boy die because you personally want it, not because of the facts," said O'Brien, a manager in the lab's technical telecommunications group. "You're a beast. You disgust me."

"Shut up!" shouted Lyons, whose husband works at the lab.

She lunges at O'Brien. Two others quickly jump up to restrain her.

"Let me go!" she shouted. "I'll kill him. I'll kill him."

"You don't really mean you'll kill me, do you?" O'Brien asked.

The entire room falls silent, marking the end of Act II rehearsal for "Twelve Angry Men, "a play based on the television movie by Reginald Rose and the latest production of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory Drama Club.

"Good job, everyone," said Scott Lichtor, the play's director and an APL missile defense engineer. "Let's take a break."

Founded in 2010, the APL Drama Club is a group of more than 35 APL employees and their family members, flexing their artistic muscles through community theater.

A division of Johns Hopkins University, APL is a nonprofit engineering, research and development organization. During the day, drama club members work on everything from solving national security problems to helping the National Aeronautics and Space Administration by designing and developing spacecraft and space instruments. But two nights a week and on some weekends, they become actors, stage managers, directors and even costume designers.

"People often get pigeon-holed into, 'You're an engineer,' or 'You're an artist,' " Lichtor said. "A lot of people who are into science and mathematics are also into the arts. It's a creative process to solve problems we run into. … We have to think outside the box. I think that factors right into acting."

The idea for the club launched in 2009, when two APL space department employees shared their interest in theater over lunch. A year later, the club was officially born.

Since its inception, the drama club has produced nine plays on APL's campus, including "The Diary of Anne Frank," "The Mouse That Roared" and "Play On."

The club also performs original works like "Cow Wars," written by Jeff Dunne, an APL physicist. In the play, which is loosely based on "Star Wars," a cow named Milky White is trying to save the farm from surrendering to the dark side of the force.

While APL provides the club with a small stipend and free rehearsal space, donations and fundraisers cover most of the club's costs.

Any APL employee can join, and acting experience is not required. APL friends and family members are also welcome, as long as at least 80 percent of the club includes APL employees, said Lynn Reggia, APL systems and software engineer and assistant director of "Twelve Angry Men."

Some club members are beginners, while others have performed on stage since childhood. Reasons for joining include wanting to try something new, improving their acting skills, networking and even relaxation.

"Since I've been in it, it's been a fantastic opportunity to network with people across the lab and have a good time," said Madeline Kirk, a Beltsville resident, APL engineer and president of the club. "It's a good stress relief at the end of the day."

O'Brien, a Laurel resident, joined the club about three months ago. He's done voice-over work since college, but he hasn't acted on stage since his teen years.

The club's play choice of Twelve Angry Men drew him in.

"When I was doing theater in high school, this was one of those plays I wish I had been in," he said.

"Twelve Angry Men" tells the story of a 12-person jury, deliberating if a boy accused of murdering his father is guilty or innocent based on reasonable doubt.

O'Brien plays the role of Juror 8 — the only juror who votes "not guilty" on the first vote. He advocates for the boy throughout the play.

Lyons, who received her undergraduate degree in theater, plays Juror 3. The character is lively and aggressive, refusing to listen to Juror 8's reasoning early in the play.

Back in the auditorium, it's almost 7 p.m. O'Brien and Lyons return to character, leaving behind the smiles they shared during break. The group only has 30 more minutes to rehearse before heading home for the night.

Lichtor provides some last-minute direction.

"Things to always pay attention to are projection, energy and hitting the lines," he said. "Juror number four, I like how you're using your notebook, but sometimes, it looks like you're reading your lines."

Instead, Lichtor recommended the actor flip through the pages as if he is looking for his notes.

Let's start at the top, Lichtor said. The actors move to their marks, the lights go down and the night's last rehearsal begins.

The APL Drama Club performs "Twelve Angry Men" on Aug. 8, 9, 10, 15, 16 and 17 at Parsons Auditorium, located at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, 11100 Johns Hopkins Road in Laurel. Tickets are free, but advanced registration is recommended to ensure seats. For more information, go to jhuapl.edu/drama or email drama@jhuapl.edu.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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