Dan O’Rourke points to an incident in Chicago years ago that he has been reminded of since agreeing to direct “12 Angry Men,” the classic courtroom drama that opens next week at ACTA Theatre in Trussville.
Soon after graduating from Indiana University with a journalism degree, he was visiting the Windy City for the first time and witnessed a group of teenage girls talking to a police officer and making false accusations against an indigent man.
“The cop approached with his nightstick, and he didn’t brutalize this man, but he sure did check him out,” O’Rourke recalls. “And I didn’t do anything.”
That was four decades ago, and he still thinks about it.
“I still wish I had gotten involved,” O’Rourke says. “I could have gone over there and said, ‘Officer, this man hasn’t done anything wrong,’ but I didn’t do that, and you can’t go back in time and correct things like that. It’s said that we regret the things that we don’t do at least as much as the things we do.”
Apathy, or indifference, is a major theme of “12 Angry Men” as the jury argues the fate of a young man accused of killing his abusive father, O’Rourke says. “That’s a dark theme in the play, our tendency not to get involved in a stranger’s life when we could. What does it take to do the right thing, or what seems to be the right thing, when the world is telling us to just worry about yourself?”
O’Rourke gets to explore that and more with “12 Angry Men,” yet another way the actor, painter, documentary filmmaker and one-time broadcast journalist is putting his storytelling skills to work.
He acted during his time in Indianapolis, appearing in shows such as “Hamlet” and “Cyrano de Bergerac,” before moving to Houston and then El Paso, Texas.
And though he has retired from on-air journalism, he’s still doing documentary work, including broadcast-style pieces for law firms, who use the documentaries in mediation.
When their daughter graduated from the University of Alabama and started a family down South, O’Rourke and his wife, Dr. Bren O’Rourke, moved to Trussville.
That was 2018, and almost immediately – he even drove the moving van into the theater parking lot – O’Rourke auditioned for and won the part of Atticus Finch in ATCA’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Roles in “Cheaper by the Dozen” and “A Christmas Story” followed, as well as shows at the Leeds Theatre & Arts Council.
All of that leads to “12 Angry Men,” a 1954 teleplay written by Reginald Rose that became a 1957 movie starring Henry Fonda and then a play.
The entire piece takes place in the jury room, as jurors argue the guilt or innocence of the young defendant.
“The script is phenomenal,” O’Rourke says. “People who write drama, if they can write three or four distinct characters, they’re thought to be doing a pretty good job. These 12 characters are all very well defined.”
He has nothing but praise for his actors.
“Because there are no scene changes in the show, you get 12 guys that come on, and they’re there the whole time,” O’Rourke says.
And because the set is such an integral part to the play, the director has paid it special attention.
“As far as visual storytelling goes, I think this really has propelled me to the next level,” O’Rourke says.
That means a lot of 1957-specific details that are used on the set, and, O’Rourke says, the opportunity to make it rain on stage.
“I want to take people back right away into a different time, and working here in the theater has been like a big art studio for me,” he says. “So, I’m telling the story with the structure of the set and working with these great actors.”
The director sees “12 Angry Men” as a precursor to the social media we know today.
“It’s almost like the 1957 version of Facebook,” he says. “There are 12 strangers who come into a room together. They are anonymous and really never know each other’s names. They hash it out, and some of them are more angry than others, but they can’t wait to give their own opinions, knowing that theirs is the only one in the room that’s right …. So, it’s like a chat room, 50-60 years ahead of its time.”
For O’Rourke, “12 Angry Men” serves up a nearly universal theme that speaks directly to that night in Chicago more than 40 years ago.
“We’re not all going to be charged with murder one day or serve on a capital murder jury, but what I think everyone has in common with the show is to ask what it takes to take that step and get involved,” he says “That’s how I’ve begun to think about the show. I can’t change that scenario in Chicago so many years ago, but when you make a mistake, like I did that night, an error of omission, let’s say, one thing you can do is to invite others to make a better decision than you did at the time. That’s one big reason I wanted to do this show.”
“12 Angry Men,” at ACTA Theatre, 225 Parkway Drive, Trussville, Feb. 8-18. The show stars Matt McGough, Blake Echols, Curtis Frost, Shawn Reese, Peter Bradberry, Zach Skaggs, Josh McDaniel, Howard Green, Jon McClaran, Bill Bright, Mike Bridges, Brian Allison and Scott Duncan. Kathryn Gilmer is assistant director.