Trial by Drama : Lawyers, Judges Will Play to a Packed Courthouse for National Law Day

Times Staff Writer

When rehearsals began two months ago for Ayn Rand's play "Night of January 16th," the actors were asked to be sure they each brought a guest on opening night.

Twelve members of the audience will be asked to portray jurors in the play, a murder trial drama set in the 1930s, and there was concern that there wouldn't be enough people in the audience to fill the jury box.

But those putting on the play needn't have worried that no one would show up on opening night Thursday--not when all the actors are members of the Orange County bar and the cast includes Superior Court Judge Judith M. Ryan as the "night watchman's wife" and Dist. Atty. Cecil Hicks as the "bailiff."

In fact, the day the play announcement appeared in the bar bulletin, more than 80 reservations came in to the Orange County Bar Assn., which is presenting the play as part of National Law Day. And, as of early this week, not only were all 140 seats reserved, but there were 150 people on a waiting list.

The play, which is free and open to the public, runs for one performance only Thursday night in Department 1 of Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana.

"We've had much more of a response than we anticipated," Newport Beach attorney Karen L. Taillon said before Monday night's rehearsal in the courtroom.

Taillon, who is serving as production manager and assistant director and has an undergraduate degree in theater arts, explained that the play is about a murder trial in which the defendant, Karen Andre (played by Corona del Mar attorney Aurora Dawn Harris), is the personal secretary of a tycoon who has died.

"She's accused of pushing him off the balcony of her penthouse suite," Taillon explained, adding that "we chose this particular play because the jury is actually selected from the audience. Members of the audience will write their names on slips of paper as they enter the courtroom and the jury will be selected from that."

Taillon said that "other than sheer enjoyment, which I think a lot of people are coming for, we're hoping the members of the jury get a feeling of what it's actually like to be involved in a trial."

Taillon said the 18-member cast, many of whom do not have acting experience, has been rehearsing once a week for the past two months.

"Everyone is so busy and has so many commitments, it's real difficult for them to take a lot of time," she said. "People have worked real hard and put the time in."

Seated in the rear of the courtroom, Newport Beach attorney Maurice Mandel II confided that the idea for doing the play was his.

"I don't want to say it too loud or half the people will kill me," he said with a grin. "I read the play a year ago and thought it would be well-suited for presentation on Law Day."

Beyond being entertained, Mandel said, "I hope the audience, especially the lay person, will get an appreciation of the jury system as one of the foundations of freedom, which is the Law Day theme. And the way I think that will happen is that (the play is) very open-ended and the decision (of the jury) could go either way." The verdict, Mandel said, will really boil down to an "evaluation of witnesses' credibility."

Mandel said proceeds from a $30-per-person post-performance cast party will go to the Orange County Bar Foundation to support youth-oriented legal education programs: Shortstop, a juvenile diversion program; the Missing Child Program and the Legal Education for Youth Program, which teaches law-related lessons in the county's elementary schools.

Although Mandel said he has no acting experience, his role as the court clerk doesn't require much in the way of emoting: "I get to swear everybody in," he explained.

But even a bit part like court clerk, he discovered, is not immune from directorial criticism.

"I've received criticism about the way I walk back and forth," he said. "The criticism was that I was too lackadaisical. I thought I was being like a regular clerk, but they wanted me to be more officious."

"I think everybody has really risen to the occasion," he said, surveying the courtroom. "Some people have put in a tremendous amount of work at home, talking into a tape recorder and into the mirror."

Commissioner Joan T. Reilly is one of the cast members who is at home on a stage. She is a former professional actress who has worked on television and in commercials.

Reilly plays Magda Svenson, the tycoon's former housekeeper. (Asked on the witness stand to describe the defendant's relationship with the tycoon, she sniffs in a thick Swedish accent, "Decent women like me shouldn't know about such things, but sin is shameless in this vorld.")

Wearing a black straw hat, black "housekeeper shoes," and a "Sunday-go-to-meeting dress" ("a housekeeper in the '30s would have worn her very best" to court), Reilly said the production has required putting in "long hours, but we've gone from panic to euphoria, I guess."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Cheryl Carson Bedsworth, who plays "the grieving widow of the deceased," made a face and laughed when asked if she has any acting experience.

"I wasn't even in a high school play," she said. "You might say I was kind of drafted."

Is she prepared to make her stage debut?

"I'm a little nervous right now," she said, "but I'll be ready when the time comes."

Dist. Atty. Cecil Hicks said he didn't mind being recruited to play the bailiff, a role that basically consists of calling the courtroom to attention.

"It suits me just fine," he said. "I'm here a lot (on stage), but I don't have much to say."

Would he have preferred a larger role?

"No," he said, "as a matter of fact, that was discussed and I realized there would be some conflicts with the rehearsal schedule. I needed something without a lot of lines in it."

Hicks added that he's never stayed through an entire rehearsal but that "I'm optimistic I'll get all the way through one" before opening night.

Taillon announced that it was time for the rehearsal to begin.

"OK, let's get started," she said. "The only people on stage are the bailiff and the clerk."

Mandel, in '30s-style white shirt and suspenders, and Hicks, in shirt sleeves, remained on stage while the rest of the cast made themselves scarce.

"OK, let's go," said Taillon.

The two plaintiffs walked in and took their seats. They were followed by the defense attorney (Laguna Hill s attorney Gary M. Pohlson) and the defendant.

Then Hicks, who has the first line in the play, walked over to the center of the courtroom.

"Everyone come to attention!" he announced in a brisk yet commanding voice. "Superior Court of the State of New York. . . ."

The play was now in session.

Cast members include Hicks, 4th District Court of Appeal Justice Edward J. Wallin, Superior Court Judge Ryan, Superior Court Judge Donald E. Smallwood, Commissioner Reilly of the Central Municipal Court and the following attorneys: Stuart T. Waldrip, Grace E. Emery, Robert A. Shaheen, Pohlson, Mandel, Harris, Robert Van Dam, David L. Price, Bedsworth, Roger A. Grable, William A. Dougherty, John Doody and Jennifer J. King.

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