Attempts will be made to see Ford’s Theatre’s spirited if politically safe revival of “Twelve Angry Men” through the prism of life in the land of the free and the home of the shutdown. You know, a dozen male jurors from disparate backgrounds and wildly divergent perspectives hashing out their differences and, after several rounds of accusation, pleading and backpedaling, managing to come to a mutual, though agonized, understanding.
But this reading —occasioned by a pleasingly glossy production in a theater maintained by the National Park Service — supposes that sanity on all sides can triumph over intransigence. (In an indication of the insanity, Ford’s is compelled to lay out the peculiar guidelines for when it is even allowed to open during the current budget stalemate.) These are facts more in evidence in the jury room conjured here by director Sheldon Epps than in some corners of the real-world debate surrounding the paralysis that has transfixed the media and imposed hardships on 800,000 federal workers.
So this interestingly tweaked revival of “Twelve Angry Men,” the first major one in Washington since a touring version with Richard Thomas visited the Kennedy Center in 2006, has been engineered to say far more about racism than about the failures of the government. This is in keeping with the vision of its author, Reginald Rose, who introduced the work in 1954 as a teleplay that was turned into a highly praised 1957 movie starring Henry Fonda and into a work for the stage.
Epps, who developed his own concept for the drama in a revival he directed at Pasadena Playhouse in 2013, has turned up the volume on “Twelve Angry Men’s” intimations of prejudice by casting six black actors and six white — a demographic portrait that varies wildly from the movie, with its all-white cast. The director also plays with our sense of time, through updated costumes and set pieces. A modern coffee dispenser on the sleek institutional set by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, for instance, suggests a room for deliberations in the here and now.
What do these decisions do to this production, which has been buffed to a smooth professional sheen? For one thing, they impose a moral framework that conforms to a contemporary, progressive political consciousness, even more forcefully than Rose’s did. For another, it doles out juicy parts to six fine African American actors who ordinarily don’t get this magnitude of opportunity in a classic ’50s drama. So bully for Epps on that score.
But the director’s conceits would have been even more worthy of praise — in a revival with several standout turns, from the likes of Michael Russotto, Erik King, Christopher Bloch, Bueka Uwemedimo and Elan Zafir — if he hadn’t chosen to stack the deck so transparently. Without revealing too much about how this jury bends in the trial of a 16-year-old boy from a poor New York City neighborhood who is charged with stabbing his father to death, one can’t help but feel a certain predictability in the way it does so. With Juror No. 8 taking a heroic solo stand for reasonable doubt, the divisions in the jury room are made to break down a bit too schematically between thoughtful jurors of color and neurotic, hysterical, close-minded white ones.
It’s not entirely unsatisfying, watching the power of the argument being turned against the jurors we think of as most associated with privilege. It’s just that it would be a more unsettling evening if some of those arguments came from unexpected seats at the rounded- triangle of a jury table.
The jurors are identified only by their numbers, one to 12, and the few biographical blue- and white-collar details they share: Mild-mannered Juror No. 2 (Sean Maurice Lynch) is a bank teller; coolly rational Juror No. 4 (Bloch) a Wall Street broker. Hotheaded No. 10 (Zafir) runs parking garages, and sensible No. 11 (Uwemedimo). the only immigrant on the panel, apparently, is a watchmaker.
Led by King’s charismatic No. 8, the black jurors are portrayed as remarkably, almost superhumanly tolerant of the vitriol aimed at ethnic minorities by some of the white jurors. (The unseen defendant’s race is never clearly delineated, but we’re led to believe he is nonwhite.) “I’ve lived with them my whole life — they’re all liars!” shouts hyperventilating No. 10. Epps has toyed with the script, excising, for example, the judge’s instructions to the jury that traditionally begin the play, and at heated moments, putting some epithets on actors’ lips.
Given some of the repulsive words that have been expressed over the past few years in our own public discourse, one can’t rule out that such remarks would be openly expressed in an ethnically diverse jury room of today. It may just be, however, that the most constructively relevant aspect of “Twelve Angry Men” remains its idealism: the conviction that our legal system is an enduring source of our strength, that it is able to withstand the most irrational and reactionary kinds of challenges to its stability. For all its bickering and hyperbolic assertions, this jury, in the end, performs its sworn duty. It is, after all, the American way.
Twelve Angry Men, by Reginald Rose. Directed by Sheldon Epps. Costumes, Wade Laboissonniere; lighting, Dan Covey; sound, John Gromada. About two hours. $17-$64. Through Feb. 17 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. 888-616-0270. fords.org.