Check out our interview with Gregory Boyd about this revival of A Few Good Men.
Aaron Sorkin blazed across Broadway's theatrical sky with his 1989 drama A Few Good Men, a play inspired by a real-life situation at Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba, although Sorkin modified some of the events for dramatic purposes. A Marine considered to be sub-standard in performance is hazed, resulting in his death, with two of his attackers charged with murder. The Alley Theatre has revived the drama, in an elaborate production that captures the rhythm of a military enclave on enemy territory, and poses the timeless moral questions at the heart of the work: where in the chain of command does responsibility lie, and to what lengths may one go to secure the safety of a nation?
The set is metallic, shifting as necessary with a clang, like a prison door closing, with a second level where the commanding colonel holds meetings and issues his edicts, and an illuminated jagged line in the neutral backdrop serves to suggest the mountaintops of Cuba and remind us that the enemy is at hand. The pace is machine-gun-fire, with dialogue spitting out like bullets, and the occasional silence even more portentous for its rarity.
The central character is Lt. j.g. Daniel A. Kaffee, an attorney with limited experience, whose manner is that of college kid on spring break, but the arc of the play reveals steel behind the casual manner, and gravitas masked by flippancy. Kaffee is portrayed by Jeremy Webb in a captivating performance, leading to a final scene filled with emotional power. Kaffee is defense attorney for the two enlisted men charged with murder, and is assisted by Lt. Cmdr. Joanne Galloway, played by Emily Neves, who finds the interesting balance between liberal do-gooder energy, and a deep concern for her clients' welfare. Also aiding the defense is Lt. j.g. Sam Weinberg, played by Jared Zirilli, who tries to bring actual courtroom experience to bear; Zirilli creates an authentic, compelling character.
Wearing the black hats in this psychodrama are Lt. Col. Nathan Jessep, commandant of the base, played by Lee Sellars; Jessep's assistant, Capt. Matthew A. Markinson, played by Alley stalwart James Black; and Lt. Jonathan James Kendrick, played by Michael Schantz. It becomes clear early on that Jessep is a bully, using intimidation and threats of blackmail. Sellars captures the hardheadedness, and hard-heartedness, of Jesseps, and is particularly impressive when allowed to use humor, as in one ribald exchange. Schantz is especially wonderful in a powerful take-no-prisoners characterization, and Black conveys the conflict between obedience and judgment, and his final awakening leads to a lurid, crucial plot event. Alley veteran Jeffrey Bean plays the Navy doctor and delivers his usual magnificent characterization, subtle and authentic.
Though the range of their performances is limited by the script, the two accused enlisted men are ably portrayed by David Pegram and Max Carpenter, and their consistently stoic miens still indicate both an idolatrous worship of the Corps, and a seething complexity behind their rebellious silences. David Rainey is excellent as the trial judge, who rules firmly but fairly on issues. I especially appreciated Robert Eli as the prosecuting attorney Lt. Ross, who brought a strong stage presence and a convincing passion to his role.
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The events on stage are peppered by Sorkin with humor, so there is ample comic relief. The driving energy and the gravity of the stakes make for gripping theater, delivered in spades. The work is directed by Gregory Boyd, artistic director of the Alley Theatre, and he and the production team have created a revival worthy of the term "great". Boyd has found the heart in humanity, the ruthlessness in power, and the sometimes errant ways of humankind struggling with issues perhaps beyond their ability fully to comprehend. And he has found the cast to bring it to vibrant, exciting life. And used his production team to light it brilliantly (David Lander), enhance it with appropriate sound (Jill BC Duboff) and create the useful and appropriate set (Takeshi Kata).
A compelling courtroom drama unfolds with humor and vividly-drawn characters as a ragtag defense team ignites to challenge military authority, in a suspenseful exploration of how military self-interest can suppress truth. The result is a breath-taking ride of theatrical splendor, cresting in an emotionally powerful denouement.
A Few Good Men continues at the Alley Theatre through March 24, 615 Texas Street. For information or ticketing, call 713-220-5700 or contact www.alleytheatre.org.