“Twelve Angry Men,” the classic jury-room drama by Reginald Rose, has undergone numerous incarnations. The 1957 film, based on Rose's original teleplay, starred Henry Fonda as one of the 12 white, male jurors determining the fate of a teenager from the slums who is accused of his father's murder. During deliberation, tempers flare and ugly prejudices against “those people” surface. It was a cable TV movie in the 1990s, fodder for stagings from the 1950s on, and made it to Broadway in 2004, courtesy of the award-winning Roundabout Theatre Company production.
The reason for this longevity? Apart from being “theatrically amazing,” said Sheldon Epps, artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse, the “somewhat disheartening thing is that the play seems to have been written last week rather than 50 years ago.”
The Playhouse's new production of “Twelve Angry Men,” helmed by Epps, opens Nov. 10. A replacement in the Playhouse line-up for “Stoneface: The Rise and Fall of Buster Keaton” — due to a scheduling conflict with star French Stewart's TV series, “Mom” — it comes in the wake of George Zimmerman's controversial acquittal this year in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, and President Obama's public response to that trial decision.
With the rise of race in the national consciousness, Epps said, it is timely for the theater to address the issue. In his conception of the play, six of the male jurors are black and six are white.
It isn't color-blind casting. Epps is asking audiences to consciously focus on the racial differences on stage. Within that context, he said, “subtextual meanings, which perhaps have always been there, become much, much stronger.”
Other theaters have taken a male melting-pot approach to Rose's play or have included women jurors, and “certainly race and racial prejudices have been very much a part of the play since it was written in the 1950s,” Epps said, but “I think that is intensified with this casting.”
When characters in the play say things about “ ‘those people, you know the way they act or behave,' in a room of 12 white men,” Epps said, it's different “than if they are said in a room where there are six black men.” In the face of racial sensitivities and incendiary flare-ups, the jurors must find a way to get back to the task at hand. The racial mix onstage, Epps said, “does make a difference in both the actions and reactions of the characters.”
The cast of stage and screen veterans includes Clinton Derricks Carroll (Juror Eleven), Jason George (Juror Eight — the Henry Fonda film role), Scott Lowell (Juror One), Gregory North (Juror Three), Barry Pearl (Juror Seven), Robert Picardo (Juror Four), Adam J. Smith (Juror Twelve), Jacques C. Smith (Juror Five), Bradford Tatum (Juror Ten), Adolphus Ward (Juror Nine), Ellis Williams (Juror Six) and Jeff Williams (Juror Two).
What actor would play each juror “sort of fell out quite naturally,” based on what the characters say in the play, Epps said. At the point in the play when the verdict count is six against six, it is the jurors played by black actors who vote not guilty, and the characters onstage are struck by the racial divide, Epps said. Without any additional dialogue, “it becomes kind of a seismic moment in the play.”
“Shockingly and in a way, quite sadly, we haven't had to make a lot of text changes to accommodate this conceptual idea,” Epps said. “You will think at certain points, ‘they must have written that for this production of the play.' Absolutely not.”
For their part, the actors shared their own experiences and stories during rehearsals to “sort out the greater meaning in this piece,” said Jason George, whose recent TV credits include regular roles on “Mistresses,” “Grey's Anatomy” and “Witches of East End.”
“You've got this specific group of actors that have all signed on to further this conversation that we're having in all different parts of our nation,” George said. “And they're all really good guys, so on the one hand, it's, ‘I really appreciate who you are as a person,' and then we go into character, and ‘you're spouting off and I want to throw things at you.'”
“And we don't make it easy on each other,” he said. “You have to take the room as an actor and make your case. I have to do it when I'm fighting for this kid [the accused] to live, Gregory North has to do it when he wants the kid to burn, Bradford Tatum has to do it when he's spouting the most vitriolic racist stuff.”
Tatum is “arguably one of the bravest actors” in the cast, George said, “the one that people are going to look at sideways and think he must really feel that deep down inside. Nothing could be further from the truth. When you're doing a play about Adam and Eve, somebody has to play the devil. It's all part of this conversation.”
Tensions that might arise from the anger and vitriol expressed by the characters they play don't carry over offstage, agreed Robert Picardo, widely known as the holographic Doctor on the series “Star Trek: Voyager.” (“I'm hoping that some of the people who used to watch me in the Delta quadrant,” he joked, “will show up and see the play.”)
As Juror Four, Picardo plays one of the last holdouts for a guilty verdict. “Working on such explosive stuff, it's done kind of the opposite of what you might expect,” he said. “It's brought out the thoughtfulness and vulnerability of all of us as individuals simply because of the dark place we have to go in the play.”
Epps credits the entire cast with bravery in “not shying away from what is sometimes the tremendous ugliness of some of the things that are said.” He wants to be clear, however, that he considers “Twelve Angry Men” to be “a great American classic in and of itself.”
“I don't want to lay all of the fascination about the play, or my excitement about doing it, on this particular concept,” Epps said. “I'm starting with a really wonderful play that deserves attention again.”
What: “Twelve Angry Men”
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena.
When: Opens 5 p.m. Sunday. Runs 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Post-show events: “Talkback Tuesdays” Nov. 12, 19, 26; “Conversation with Cast Members” Nov. 24. Pre-show “Hot Seat” discussion, Nov. 20. Ends Dec. 1.
Tickets: Regular seating: $38 to $72.
More info: (626) 356-7529, http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org
LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.