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Audiences Looking for “A Few Good Men” Find More Than a Few Great Performances at Covedale

Review by Jack Crumley of A Few Good Men: Covedale Theatre

The new Marquee Season at the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts is here, and though this year will feature family favorites like The Wizard of Oz and A Christmas Story, the season starts with a dialogue-driven military drama. A Few Good Men by Aaron Sorkin is widely known by the 1992 film starring Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson, but it started as a play Sorkin wrote that opened on Broadway in 1989.

A Few Good Men tells the story of two Marines stationed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who are accused of murdering a fellow Marine in an apparent hazing incident gone wrong. The focus, though, is on Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Rory Sheridan), the defense attorney for the accused Marines. He’s very good at plea deals, but he actively avoids court-martials (or any kind of real work at all). Pushing him to be better is Lieutenant Commander Joanne Galloway (Erin Carr), who is driven–and sometimes blinded–by her passion. In the course of giving these men a strong defense, they come to realize the hazing, called a “Code Red,” is part of a conspiracy and coverup by Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Jessep (AJ Ford), who’s decided he’s more of an authority on right and wrong than the law itself.

The Covedale production, directed by Ed Cohen, was presented on a stage with a bit of a layered set. The backdrop features a large Marine Corps emblem. In front of that is a fence with barbed wire that functions on stage as both an outside area of Gitmo and a jail cell for the accused Marines. There are tall searchlights on either side. In front of that is an arrangement of tables and chairs as needed by various scenes. It’s a simple but effective set since so much of the story weighs on the script and the actors.

Traditionally, I’m not a fan of pointing out the actors having memorized their lines as a point of praise, but this is Sorkin. 1980s Sorkin. So if I were to give credit for a complicated dance routine or a challenging song, I’m going to give credit to this cast for handling the dialogue. Aaron Sorkin’s stereotypical rapidfire, staccato back-and-forth is on full display here, and there were maybe two times when an actor hit a minor speed bump in that delivery on Saturday night. Really, this is not an easy script, and the cast deserves praise for the work they clearly put in.

The lion’s share of that work rests on Rory Sheridan’s shoulders as Lt Kaffee. He’s playing a character who is smart but flippant. Kaffee is the son of a legendary attorney and his struggle with feeling that childhood pressure comes to a head by the show’s climax. Sheridan plays the character with confidence and an excellent sense of comedic timing. Because it’s a relatively static set, there are scenes that begin simply by a character walking into a different spotlight, and often, it’s Sheridan’s Kaffee who has to switch gears from a terse exchange with a soldier into a sarcastic joke about the softball team. Sheridan handles those shifts in tone seamlessly. Having last seen Sheridan play Father Flynn in the Covedale’sproduction of Doubt, A Parable, it was fun to watch him play a character with more time on stage.

Erin Carr’s work as Galloway is challenging in that she’s playing the lone woman on stage in a 1980s military setting. She plays the character with the necessary agency and drive without veering into what could come off as too “emotional.” Carr’s Galloway knows she’s in what could be the ultimate boy’s club and she doesn’t back down just because a man is being stern with her. She’s still human and vulnerable, but she chooses when to show it.

AJ Ford plays Lt Col Jessep, the man who ultimately becomes the villain of the story, but like all good villains, he sees himself as the real hero. Ford’s air brings a sense of authority the minute he walks on stage. He doesn’t fidget. He holds eye contact. There’s a moment when he’s on the witness stand (in the runup to the famous “you can’t handle the truth” scene) when Kaffee asks him a question and he slooooowly turns his head from facing the audience to looking at his questioner. It really gave off a sense of command and dominance in his performance. The only thing I wanted more of from him was to take his time more with that big speech in the courtroom climax. I wanted him to really revel in his self-righteous indignation; his smug, moral superiority.

Other cast members worth noting: Phineas Clark’s work as Captain Markinson is extremely efficient with the few lines he gets, and his delivery was impeccable. The two Marines accused of murder, Trent Marcum as Lance Corporal Dawson and Tanner McDole as Private First Class Downey, are extremely well cast. Their ability to deliver exposition as proud soldiers at the top of the show to their vulnerable moments in custody and in the courtroom seemed effortless. Nathan Tubbs as Lieutenant Sam Weinberg plays backup to Sheridan’s Kaffee more so than to Carr’s Galloway, though they’re all on the same side. Tubbs has an easy demeanor, but his monologue about why he thinks Dawson and Downey should be locked up for life was delivered with an impressively honest, fiery sympathy for the victim.

On the technical side, there’s a moment during the big courtroom scene that deserves praise. As the pressure is building for Lt Col Jessep on the witness stand, as he’s being bombarded by Kaffee’s questions and subsequent objections and rulings, the searchlights on either side of the stage start to slowly get brighter. It’s a subtle way to make the audience feel that much more tension in an already explosive scene.

Something that took away from the tension at times was the blocking. I’m not sure if it’s because the set was layered in that way with the fencing, but sometimes it looked like characters had a hard time shuffling past one another. It felt like the stage was crowded, and it took me out of the show a little bit when these strong people who make hard decisions had to take awkward side steps around a chair.

This play is a taut, focused production with interesting characters and impressive performances. It’s the kind of show you need to actively watch, and it rewards you as you watch the story piece together. There is some brief fighting and some cursing, but nothing worse than a PG-13 movie (the Cruise/Nicholson film is rated R).

A Few Good Men runs at the Covedale Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday through October 7. Tickets are available by calling 513-241-6550 or going to the Covedale website, www.cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com/ccpa