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Stageworks’ ‘Angry’ courtroom drama debuts this week

Bill DeYoung

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Two angry men: Jim Wicker, left, and Ned Averill-Snell. Photo: Stageworks Theatre.

Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men is usually described as a courtroom drama, and in the most suspenseful, tension-and-release fashion, that’s what it is.

Yet the action in this 1954 play, opening Friday at Stageworks Theatre, does not happen in the courtroom at all. Rather, it’s completely behind the scenes, behind the deadbolted door of the jury room.

That’s who the titular 12 fellows are. And yes, many of them are angry. It’s claustrophobic in there. They’re also sweaty, and frustrated – and locked into patterns of verbal combat with one another.

None of the jurors are ever identified by name; they’re more like types.

“I think that is the playwright’s effort to make them all everymen,” opines Ned Averill-Snell, who plays the juror the script calls No. 8. “I think the playwright is saying ‘Any one of these guys could be any one of us.’”

Averill-Snell’s character was played by Henry Fonda in the 1957 film version of Twelve Angry Men. Amongst the jurors sequestered to decide the guilt or innocence of a teenage boy accused of murder, he’s the first to hesitate about rushing to judgement and getting the hell out of there.

“He starts out in the same place as all the other characters in feeling that the defendant is probably guilty,” says Averill-Snell. “But he’s very interested in honoring the process and taking it seriously. He wants to make sure that enough time is taken.

“And then there’s an evolution across the action of the play, where wanting to take enough time evolves into reasonable doubt. And that evolves into innocence.”

A big part of the old movie’s charm is the casting – it’s a who’s who of top-shelf 1950s character actors, including Jack Warden, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, Jack Klugman, E.G. Marshall, Martin Balsam and John Fiedler.

All different, all unforgettable.

At Stageworks, suggests Averill-Snell, “it’s a wonderful group of actors. They’re all very good and very well cast – (director) Rosemary Orlando has done a great job of putting together a very balanced ensemble of very distinctive looking and sounding guys.”

A longtime fixture on bay area stages, Averill Snell has performed alongside several of the Angry Men actors in other shows. Many are new to him.

The show was just weeks away from opening in March 2020, and had to be canceled. Which makes this a “new” production of Twelve Angry Men, in that Stageworks artistic director Karla Hartley was intent on bringing it back to life once Covid rules were sufficiently relaxed (masks are still required in the theater, and other safety measures remain in place).

Unfortunately, several members of that 2020 cast were unavailable for the 2022 re-mount.

“I knew it’d had some casting ups and downs,” says Averill-Snell, who was not in the original Stageworks cast. “I reached out to Karla and said ‘Have you got any holes?’”

Hartley and Orlando fit him in. Others in this cast are Ryan Sturm, Ryan Patrick, Jim Wicker, Greg Thompson, Lenny Agnello, Jakob Nordstrom, James Swallow, Hugh Timony, Paul Palmisano, Jim Risagaard and Matt Acquard.

Twelve Angry Men is a product of its era – there are no women and no people of color on the jury – and the story arc will be familiar to anyone who’s been riveted to a courtroom drama on TV over the last 60 years.

Ah, but that’s not the point at all, believes Ned Averill-Snell. “So many people have seen this story. It’s been repeated and parodied – I think there was an Odd Couple where Felix was the odd juror out – so it’s a well-known path.”

However. “I’ve learned that the pleasure of the play is in the journey,” he says. “You kind of know where it’s going, but seeing how it gets there is really fascinating – and really well played by this group of actors.”

Twelve Angry Men opens with a preview performance Thursday (Jan. 6). All info and tickets here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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