Chain of Command
Audiences may know Aaron Sorkin best from television's top-rated and Emmy-winning The West Wing, but he blazed across Broadway's theatrical sky with his 1989 drama A Few Good Men, sold to a film producer before the play even opened. When it was filmed in 1992 with Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson and Demi Moore, the line "You can't handle the truth" entered the pantheon of memorable cinematic phrases. The play was inspired by a real-life situation at Guantánamo Naval Base in Cuba; a Marine considered to be substandard in performance is hazed, resulting in his death, and two of his attackers are charged with murder.
A Few Good Men has been produced less often than might be expected, given its successful run of 497 performances on Broadway, possibly because it has a large cast and is beyond the resources of small companies. Now 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? Its relevance is beyond question, since this revival opens the same week that Congress seeks answers to whether U.S. drone planes can kill U.S. citizens on American soil, as they already have in foreign lands, with the administration responding "No" in a carefully worded policy statement.
The set is minimal and 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; 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 is 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 a college kid on spring break, but the arc of the play reveals steel behind the casual manner and gravitas masked by flippancy. Played on Broadway by Tom Hulce, Kaffee is here portrayed by Jeremy Webb in a captivating performance, leading to a final brief scene filled with emotional power. Webb delivers on the humor and permits us to glean that the irreverence may be a mask encouraging his adversaries to underestimate him.
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, sometimes misplaced, 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 to coerce a doctor into a distorted medical report, and it is giving nothing away to report that the issue at hand is whether a cover-up will succeed. Schantz is especially wonderful in a powerful take-no-prisoners characterization, and Black successfully suggests the conflict between obedience and judgment; his final awakening leads to a lurid crucial plot event. Sellars captures the hardheadedness of Jessep and is particularly impressive when allowed to use humor, as in one ribald exchange. Sellars doesn't match Jack Nicholson in the famous passage when Jessep is cornered on the witness stand, but this is not a criticism — just a note that Nicholson is a continent unto himself. Alley veteran Jeffrey Bean plays the Navy doctor and delivers his usual magnificent characterization, though here not on the side of the angels.
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 a number of contentious courtroom issues. And I especially appreciated Robert Eli as the prosecuting attorney, Lt. Ross, who brought a strong stage presence and a convincing passion to his role.
The events onstage are peppered with humor, so there is ample comic relief to break tension before it rebuilds. The driving energy and the gravity of the stakes make for gripping theater. 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 errant ways of humankind struggling with issues beyond its ability to comprehend; has found the cast to bring it to vibrant, exciting life; and has 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).
In a country where respect for the armed forces looms large and there are almost 1,000 officers at the level of general in all branches combined, the influence of the military on our culture is unmistakable. The cautionary warning of our warrior/leader, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, against the rising power of the "military-industrial complex" goes unheeded. And even the military cuts mandated by the sequestration may be repealed by Congress. Sorkin's play may contain a hidden message: To what extent do we leave largely unsupervised the operations of a significant portion of our government when military allegiance may be to its own reputation, as in the tragic event dramatized here, rather than to the nation's interests? This play may turn out to be more important, and perhaps even more relevant and prophetic, than we can imagine today.
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 breathtaking ride of theatrical splendor, cresting in an emotionally powerful denouement.
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events