Marines and murder mingle during A Few Good Men’s legal maneuvers
By James MacKillop
I ntimacy in live theater can be both an asset and a risk. The up-close and personal space of the Fire & Ice banquet facilities, inside the Locker Room at 528 Hiawatha Blvd., was never intended to be a theater. For an actual banquet you could squeeze in a few bowling teams but never the whole league, although that hasn’t stopped Not Another Theater Company from mounting productions there. The tight space unquestionably heated up the gags in Reefer Madness: The Musical and put some spunk into that old warhorse The Odd Couple.
So try to imagine the logistical burden put on first-time director Katie Lemos- Brown when she has to stage 20 players (in uniform) in A Few Good Men, Aaron Sorkin’s epic 2½-hour courtroom drama. You’d never confuse the sensation of wading into it with watching a projected movie.
Despite the sizable income Sorkin has gained from television (The West Wing) and film (The Social Network, Moneyball), he was a man for live theater first. Many people in town remember him as a student actor in the Syracuse University Drama Department (BFA, 1983). A Few Good Men was written for the stage and brims with roles encouraging actors to strut their stuff, high and low. The minor part of the second defense witness, Cpl. Howard (Tim Rowlands), to take but one example, is designed for scene-stealing. That’s why it has become, despite its huge cast, the major American courtroom drama of the last 25 years. Translated into many languages, it has been performed more widely in the last 10 years than when it was new in 1989.
The current production comes at a time when Sorkin’s stage play is shaking off the dominance of the imagery from the 1992 film adaptation. The line roared by Jack Nicholson, “You can’t handle the truth,” is one of a handful from movies of the past two decades cited by people who never saw director Rob Reiner’s take on the drama. Thus, director Lemos-Brown’s linguistic task is greater than her logistical one. It’s much the same with “Bah, humbug” or “To be or not to be”: regaining the words’ power by recontextualizing them and then pronouncing them afresh. Nicholson doesn’t own those lines.
Sorkin has been interviewed so often locally that many will know the origins of the story. While the author was still struggling with menial jobs in Manhattan, his older sister Deborah, then in the navy Judge Advocate’s Corps, told him of an episode that took place at Guantánamo Bay in 1986. Two enlisted Marines were being tried for the murder of a Hispanic Pfc. pretty much despised by the unit as a malingerer and complainer. The two men had unquestionably caused the recruit’s death, but it was not clear whether it was just horseplay, hazing that got out of line, an unfortunate accident, or what.
Before we can get into the many levels of tension, Sorkin wants us to see how any Marine base, not just Guantánamo, contrasts with life as the rest of us live it. A Few Good Men has 20 players, and not one of them can be cut. Take, for example, the contributions of the marching enlisted men who remind us in scene after scene of the pervasiveness of a homegrown Prussian subculture, melding often with militant Evangelical Christianity. These are not just decorations of digressions but bring to life the mindset the play is really about.
Although Deborah Sorkin is unmistakably the model for Lt. Cmdr. Joanne Galloway (played by Katie Deferio), the only woman in the cast, and although the actual trial revealed a good deal of offi cial chicanery, most of A Few Good Men is invention and evocation. The four-person legal staff can be compared with other Sorkin creations. He likes choppy, rapid dialogue, a bit like David Mamet but with a lighter touch and less profanity. And perhaps because he was deeply impressed by Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, Sorkin loves characters that initially appear to be irresponsible jerks and then surprise us by maturing before our eyes.
The defense team falls into the unsteady hands of Lt. j.g. Daniel Kaffee (Jordan Glaski), even though Galloway outranks him. Unlike the movie’s characters played by Tom Cruise and Demi Moore, there are no romantic tensions between Kaffee and Galloway, even though Katie Deferio exudes the refined beauty of a Florentine princess. Her beauty may be as much a liability as her femininity because Galloway has to struggle to be taken seriously. Lt. j.g. Sam Weinberg (James Uva), the Jewish funnyman, offers what little comic relief there is, while Lt. Jack Ross (Nathan Faudree), the prosecutor, is a friendly colleague rather than a personal adversary. None of them yet know the depths of the case.
For Jordan Glaski, little seen before now, Kaffee is a breakthrough role and strong enough to make you forget Cruise playing it. Glaski’s Kaffee is not just feckless but also cocky and rude. He’s dogged by the memory of a famous father whose shadow he has not matched. In a delicious moment of self-perception he wonders aloud why such a loser as himself has been assigned to the case. In the critical courtroom climax, however, he pours on the heat most confidently, surprising himself while astonishing his detractors.
In any courtroom drama, the tension arises from the distinct possibility that the other side might have a plausible case. One of the ways Lemos-Brown helps Sorkin to do this is in the differing portrayal of the several Marine officers. They are not all cut from the same cloth. Fair-minded Capt. Matthew Markinson (Michael O’Neill) is a tortured man of conscience. The medico, Cmdr. Walter Stone (Alan Stillman), seems rather squishy in spite of his name. Capt. Isaac Whitaker (Samuel Tamburo) is cheery and businesslike. Lt. Kendrick (James Sanders) might be a nutcase religious zealot, but we don’t think he would lie. And in an inspired stroke of casting, beloved community theater figure Al Marshall plays the ironic, dispassionate judge Capt. Randolph, implying that the defense is going to get a fair hearing.
This leads to the aspect of this production likely to cause the most comment: the demonic transformation—and haircut—of all-around good guy lead Joe Piarce as Lt. Col. Nathan Jessup, the highest-ranking officer. Once Atticus Finch, now Beelzebub. The coarse sexual language in front of Galloway startles much more five feet away from the audience than Jack Nicholson could on the big screen. His oft-quoted line, made clearer here, is a paradoxical admission of guilt.
Dustin Czarny’s Not Another Theater Company, with the most modest venue in town, has been defying skeptics for two years now. Trying such a huge show with a novice director was asking for trouble, redoubling the exaltation that it works so astonishingly well. No small part of the success of the show goes to Moody’s Seabag 2 for three costumes changes, khaki, white and dress blue, for so many players.
This production runs through Saturday, Oct. 1. See Times Table for information.