NHS stageplay reflects schools’ problems

NAUGATUCK — The borough’s public school system has engaged in a fair amount of debate with various stakeholders over the last several months.

Last weekend, theatergoers in the Naugatuck High School auditorium bore witness to an entirely different breed of debate.

The NHS Drama Club presented “12 Angry Jurors” on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. The play was an adaptation of a 1954 teleplay, which was the basis of the 1957 feature film “12 Angry Men,” starring Henry Fonda and directed by Sidney Lumet.

So just as administrators got through nitpicking budget items, appealing to unions and town leaders for help and passing many long hours at public and non-public roundtable meetings, a panel of 12 borough students huddled at their own set of plastic foldaway tables and dramatically explored the American justice system, the meaning of social responsibility and the triumph of intellect over instinct, of reason over emotion.

The high school’s Drama Club, like so many borough entities, the state government, and countless American businesses and families is, at least for now, managing to do more with less.

“12 Angry Jurors” is unique in that the entire play takes place in one room, on one basic set made up of little more than tables, chairs, a water cooler, one door and a painted window. It’s an inside perspective of a jury’s heated deliberation after a murder trial.

Juror 8 (Stefanie Cagno, far left) was the lone vote of “not guilty” early on in last weekend’s production. By the play’s end, she had convinced the rest of the jury that there was, indeed, cause for reasonable doubt.

Juror 8 (Stefanie Cagno, far left) was the lone vote of “not guilty” early on in last weekend’s production. By the play’s end, she had convinced the rest of the jury that there was, indeed, cause for reasonable doubt.

At stake is a 19-year-old man’s life; he’s been accused of murdering his father in cold blood in a tenement slum. The jury initially seems intent on rendering a guilty verdict, but juror number eight harbors “reasonable doubt” and insists that the jury work through the finer points of some questionable testimony before jumping to conclusions.

The accused is from the slums, and it becomes clear that some jurors’ preconceived notions about his social standing—and perhaps his ethnicity, though it’s never explicitly mentioned—are affecting their judgment.

But in the end, the central tenet of the American criminal justice system—that anyone charged with a criminal act is innocent until proven guilty—triumphs. The jury never proves the boy’s innocence, but simply calls into question many facets of the prosecution’s case against him. The members eventually agree there is reasonable doubt and favor acquittal

The play as a whole affirms the integrity of the justice system, but still provokes some important questions: What if the man was guilty? Is it better to jail an innocent man or let a guilty man walk free? What if there had been no juror number eight? Would the system have failed?

It’s as much an ode to principled justice as it is a warning against complacency, prejudice and a lack of civic responsibility among jurors.

According to Kulmann, the important thing to take away from the story is a sense that all sides of a story must be fairly and objectively heard and that not everything can be taken at face value.

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In a way, “12 Angry Jurors’ minimalist set and stripped-down overall production was also reflective of the very problems the borough’s public school system has been facing in recent years.

As it stands, the auditorium uses a portable public address system because the installed system is obsolete—“ancient,” as drama club director Chris Kulmann put it. The lights and acoustic shell, which bounces and projects sound toward the audience, are fixed, though moveable systems are ideal. The lights, Kulmann said, aren’t the right colors; red, green and blue lights combine to form pure white light, and the auditorium’s current lighting scheme comprises yellow, blue and red hues, casting the stage in a “yellow tint.”

The Davis Auditorium Restoration Committee (DARC), which formed and raised funds a few years back, will soon dissolve, according to committee members Charley Marenghi and Kevin DelGobbo.

The roughly $130,000 left in its fund will be transferred to the Board of Education Facilities Committee, once the permit for the auditorium’s new chairlift is processed. New technical systems for the auditorium, Marenghi said, are nearly a fiscal impossibility.

“We only had a finite amount of funds,” Marenghi said. “When we got to the point of doing light and sound, we were light the amount we needed. To get it to status quo, not even state-of-the-art, just to the point where auditoriums in other schools are, we’re looking at a half a million bucks in lighting, sound and stage work.”

The majority of work included in the committee’s original plan was completed in 2006.

“The biggest priority at the time was to replace the seating,” DelGobbo said. “We took it upon ourselves to see what additional things needed to get done there and, frankly, quite a bit of that did get done.” It was an “incredible effort” given logistical and scheduling conflicts.

But replacing broken seats, floor tiles and doors, installing new bathrooms, adding a wheelchair lift to the stage, and dealing with asbestos sapped most of DARC’s funding before upgrades to the stage and technical systems, which are as old as the auditorium itself, could be considered.

The auditorium was built in 1959.

DelGobbo said the formal committee might dissolve, but he and other members would remain committed to the project and would offer their ideas at coming Board of Education meetings.

“What’s in my mind now is to step back, evaluate, see what can be done within the existing funds,” he said. “You can’t actually go and fundraise and ask people for money until you have a clear idea exactly what you’re asking for. That will be a conversation going forward.”

If improvements to the technical systems remain out of the question, Marenghi would like to see that remaining cash put toward aesthetic stage improvements, including painting, raising out-jutting sprinkler heads and replacing curtains.

As it is, light and sound production can be leased and contracted from vendors, but Marenghi said if the Davis facility had better amenities, it might have more earning power as a rental space.

Or it might just make life easier for the theater and music departments, which do what they can with limited resources.

“It’s definitely hard to put on a production there,” Marenghi said. “Things are falling apart, and the kids deserve better. … With all the focus on the turf and the field now, we don’t want to forget about the other side of the building.”

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Kulmann said the drama club took “12 Angry Jurors’” serious subject matter and stark production as a challenge, and though students needed “a little assistance,” they managed to get it under their collective belt in only 15 rehearsals over a seven-week span.

He said students at Manchester High School prepared for their own production of “12 Angry Jurors” over the same time span but rehearsed five days a week.

“They were getting really discouraged [with the play’s difficulty], and I had to find a comparison,” Kulmann said of his actors. “And once I told them that, they felt a lot better about themselves.”

He said his actors studied not only their characters in the primary script but also comparable characters in other dramas or in real life.

For example, NHS senior Stefanie Cagno, who played Juror 8, the squeaky wheel who sows the seed of doubt among the other 11 jurors, studied the late Pope John Paul II for “always wanting to hear both sides of the story,” and for “wanting specific justice,” Kulmann said.

Juror 10 (Peter Corbett, far left) and Juror 3 (Skylar Brewer, second from left) were adamant in their belief that the accused was guilty of murder in the first degree.

Juror 10 (Peter Corbett, far left) and Juror 3 (Skylar Brewer, second from left) were adamant in their belief that the accused was guilty of murder in the first degree.

On the other hand, Peter Corbett (Juror 10) studied Fred Phelps, founder of Westboro Baptist Church, as the epitome of subjective zealousness and a “complete and total bigot,” Kulmann said.

The church has made headlines for a number of its exploits, including its vehement protests at the funerals of soldiers killed in action in Iraq and vitriolic hatred of homosexuals. Among its latest exploits is a promise to picket the funerals of those killed in Sunday’s explosion at a Middletown power plant and a declaration that that incident— not to mention last month’s earthquake in Haiti—was the “righteous judgment of God.”

Juror 10 hardly exhibits callousness to that degree, but purely as a character study, Phelps should have provided some insight.

Kulmann said all the actors invested in and studied the characters, but their biggest hurdle was simply memorizing their cues and lines. They learned to work as a team and offer hints onstage whenever anyone struggled to remember a line. Such moments were noticeable only once or twice throughout the entire two-hour production on Saturday.

Overall, the actors were convincing, showed some chemistry, and did well to make audiences really consider the heady content of the play.

“I think they felt extremely accomplished because it is such a challenging play,” Kulmann said. “I really got a sense of unity outside of the rehearsal space and afterward. In real life, this show kind of built bonds. That was probably one of the neatest things.”

He said the drama club sold between 50 and 60 tickets for each of the three performances. He hopes the club’s next production, “Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog,” will pique more student interest (and, in turn, attendance) than the somewhat dry “12 Angry Jurors.”

“Dr. Horrible” has grown into a cult classic among high school and college theater enthusiasts since it was disseminated via the Internet during the writer’s strike in 2007. TV writer Joss Whedon created the teleplay “to show that you can have good art for free,” Kulmann said.

The cast last weekend consisted of Cagno, Corbett, Danielle Wicks (Juror 1), Chelsea Newman (Juror 2), Skylar Brewer (Juror 3), Erica Blasko (Juror 4), Jordan Garcia (Juror 5), Evan Merrill (Juror 6), Melissa Campo (Juror 7), Bryce Burroughs (Juror 9), Devon Camancho (Juror 11) and Katie Coyle (Juror 12). Devin Burroughs was Kulmann’s assistant director.