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Theatre Jacksonville opened Ayn Rand’s melodramatic courtroom play Night of January 16th, to run through March 17th at 2032 San Marco in Jacksonville. Call 396-4425 for reservations.
When this play debuted in 1934, most Americans had limited opportunities to learn about trial procedures, which would have required courtroom visits. Since then, with the aid of movies and television, Americans are well aware of court room procedures and depictions are very popular.
The entire play takes place in a New York City court room in the year 1933. The set and lighting designed by TJ’s Technical Director Jeff Wagoner is striking. The courtroom interior, with blonde wood walls, railings, and furnishing fills the stage. To complete the visual picture, Costume Designer Tracy Olin, besides playing a major role in the play, has chosen an assortment of clothing to accommodate the large cast of sixteen in period attire. The fashions for men range from severe bankers suits to much less formal attire that includes patterned vests and rakish hats; those of the women convey information about aspects of character and social status.
We know you are already curious about the date of January 16th. That is the day when Bjorn Faulkner, a character we never see but do learn a lot about, died when he fell or was pushed from a New York penthouse. His former secretary and mistress of ten years, Karen Andre, is on trial for the murder. As played by Tracy Olin, she is an attractive Swedish lady, who is mysterious, ice-cold and calm, at least in Act One.
District Attorney Flint calls a number of witnesses to the stand to pursue prosecution for the state. As the prosecutor, Michael Bartlo excels in another leading role on the Theatre Jacksonville stage. You may remember him in his debut as Teach in American Buffalo. His opponent as Defense Attorney Stevens is David Gile, who also gives an excellent and convincing performance. Gile took over this role just two weeks ago when the original actor had to drop out due to illness, and his performance was remarkably polished.
Among the significant witnesses is Faulkner’s recently acquired wife, and now widow, Nancy Lee (Sommer Farat). Did she really love her husband? Nancy Lee hired a slick-talking private eye (Evan Gould), the day after they were married, to “watch” over him. Did Bjorn marry her for her connections? Her father, John Graham Whitfield (Mark Wright), is a wealthy banker and able to loan millions of dollars to save the failing business of his son-in-law.
The parade of colorful witnesses included Rob Conger as John Hutchins, the apartment doorman; Chris Morrissey as Siegurd Jungquist, one of Faulkner’s clerical staff; Maggie Winstead O’Connor playing Magda Svenson, Faulkner’s housekeeper; Jerald Wheat as Elmer Sweeney, the first cop to arrive at the death scene; and Rick Sheffler as handwriting expert Chandler, who is called in to examine the supposed suicide note left by Faulkner. Joshua Taylor is Guts Regan, as you can guess by the name, a gangster, and a sharp dresser and fast-talking shady character, who figures big in the outcome of this trial and in the life of the accused Ms. Andre.
Actually the first witness called is a Dr. Kirkland who testifies no drugs were found on the dead body. Russ Kirk in this role is making a comeback after his last role seven years ago in Over the River and Through the Woods. Kirk is very familiar with Night of January 16th because he directed it in 1976 at the long gone Case Theatre in Mandarin.
Rounding out the cast and performing their official courtroom duties with an air of authenticity were Jerry Wisner as Judge Heath, Lorraine Wheat as Clerk of the Court, Bradley Akers as the Bailiff, and as the Jury Forewoman, Katie Wisner.
Playwright Rand made this play unique by having a jury of twelve selected from the audience who reach a “guilty or not guilty” verdict toward the end; the cast then closes with the appropriate ending scene.
Director Michelle Svenson Simkulett, who usually directs comedies on the TJ stage, did an excellent job especially in the casting department. Ms. Simkulett wisely had her jury of twelve sitting in the orchestra pit, with their backs to the audience; only their heads could be observed. Rand intended for the jury to be on stage and that worked for audiences in 1933. However, a jury in modern dress would clash with a cast dressed in 1930s clothing; with the way people dress for the theatre these days who knows what might be seen? On this particular evening, the twelve volunteer jurors were employees of the Jacksonville Public Library System. The library, by the way, has a good selection of Ayn Rand books, e-books and books on CD, including her two famous creations, “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged.”
If you like courtroom dramas like Witness for the Prosecution and The Caine Mutiny you will really like this play. All in all is it a good production but we do have one suggestion that some of the witnesses raise their voice volume when testifying, as they were difficult to hear at time.
Are you an expert sleuth? Can you figure out who done it? Check out Night of January 16th.