BY CARY GINELL
The play Twelve Angry Men is being presented this weekend by the Oak Park High School Drama Department in a production directed by Allan Hunt. Hunt, however, has decided to present two versions of the classic 1954 teleplay, one utilizing the traditional all-male cast, and another using twelve females in the jury. We spoke with Hunt about the differences between the two versions as well as about a history of the show.
VCOS: Have you directed this show before?
ALLAN: Yes, I directed the male version in the early 2000s in Los Angeles. It’s interesting, because, as you know, it didn’t start off as a play. It was originally a teleplay, written by Reginald Rose back in 1954. It was a one-hour production on an old CBS television show called Studio One, which was like shows like Playhouse 90 in those days. On that show, Bob Cummings played Juror No. 8, the role played by Henry Fonda in the movie version, and Franchot Tone was Juror No. 3, the role played by Lee J. Cobb, the character who is the antagonist and has issues with his son. Then Fonda got a hold of it and made it into a film. It was big hit – done in black and white, no frills. Sidney Lumet directed it and it had a bunch of great actors along with Fonda like Ed Binns, John Fiedler, and Jack Klugman, who is so young in the film that you almost don’t recognize him. You’ll get a kick out of this: in the original teleplay version in 1954, there’s a guard who opens the door and says, “OK, gentlemen, if you need me, I’ll be right outside.” When I looked at the kinescope, his voice sounded very familiar, and I checked again, and it was about a twenty-three-year-old Vincent Gardenia.
The film was a hit; it was nominated for Best Picture, so as a result of that, it became a stage play, and over the years, Twelve Angry Men has become very popular, not only because it’s such a great play, but because you can’t beat having only one set and is very easy to put on, and always gets the audience involved. And then, over the years, our female community got involved, and said, “Hey, we can be angry, too!, how about letting us in on this?” (laughs) This happened after Reginald Rose died, so the estate was put into the hands of Sherman Sergel, who created Twelve Angry Jurors, so the jury was now integrated. Then they took it a step further and made it Twelve Angry Women. So there are actually three versions out there now.
VCOS: How has this show fared over the last sixty years. Has it aged well? How do you explain the times this story was written to your teenaged students?
ALLAN: That’s an interesting question, because the references in the play are deliberately neutral. They don’t name presidents or dates or things like that. We’re setting it in 1964. A lot of people in the play look like madmen, and of course, everybody is smoking, in keeping with the times. But a lot of the characters make references to “those people.” Some of the jurors say about the kid that’s on trial, “he’s one of THEM.” And “you can’t trust them; they’re born liars.” But they never name the group, whether the kid comes from Spanish Harlem or the black community or Italians. And I think that’s really ingenious writing. We don’t need to know. It’s just a prejudice that exists; birds of a feather, and that kind of a thing. I admire the dynamic that that gives us. It lets the audience do the thinking.
VCOS: When you examine the script, it really is timeless, isn’t it? All the evidence given, the props used, all of this could happen today. It’s still relevant and timely.
ALLAN: Exactly. And that’s why there’s no need to update it, or even to make a big fuss about it taking place in the sixties. By not naming the groups and keeping it within that scope, I think everybody is on board, right away. You also never see the kid who’s on trial. In the movie, you do. He’s a very soft-faced Hispanic kid. But it’s never mentioned in the dialog. Several of the jurors have real pre-conceived notions about him; they’ve already made up their mind. But the whole theme of Twelve Angry Men is “look closer.” What the Henry Fonda character, Juror No. 8, has come up with, are very subtle things, upon closer examination makes people say, “Oh, wait a minute.” Many times in the play, he says, “Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know myself. Maybe he is guilty. But I want to ask a question.” One of the jurors, who is played by Jack Warden, wants to get to a Yankee game that he has tickets for, and he keeps looking at his watch. That’s all he really cares about. Boy, that’s really human nature.
In the girls’ version, there are places where there is a little bit of dialog change where we didn’t have a girl wanting to get out of there to go to a ball game, we say that she and her husband have tickets to a hit Broadway show. And we even have the name of the show; it’s a new musical called Fiddler on the Roof. And she can’t wait to get there.
VCOS: In the original play, the other jurors all have very male-oriented occupations for the time, like construction worker, watch repairman, advertising man. How are the changes made to adjust to the women’s version?
ALLAN: Yes, you’re right. Especially in the sixties. Very few women were career women. There is a girl who is in advertising, but Juror No. 6, who was a house painter in Twelve Angry Men, we made her a decorator. Many of the girls in the women’s play make reference to “my husband and I do this” or “my husband and I have a business.” Juror No. 10, who is also an antagonist, almost as strong as Juror No. 3, owns three garages. So we change it so that she says “my husband and I have three garages,” so she’s involved, but doesn’t run the business. Juror No. 4, who was a Wall Street broker, played by E. G. Marshall in the movie; we kept that. She’s well-dressed in a pinstriped, natty suit, with glasses, and she’s a female stock broker. No. 2 is a housewife as opposed to a bank teller, and her kid has the mumps and is worried about him. But the structure and the script is basically the same, which is what makes it such a timeless and ingenious work.
Twelve Angry Men / Twelve Angry Women plays for one weekend only, at Oak Park High School Pavilion. For dates, showtimes, and to see which version plays when, consult the VC On Stage Calendar.