Review by Sheldon Polonsky of A Few Good Men: Covedale Theatre
Performing a theatrical version of an iconic movie is always fraught with pitfalls—even if it was a play first, as was A Few Good Men, which was a drama by Adam Sorkin before the memorable film starring Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson. And, to be honest, early in Covedale’s production, I was worried that they weren’t going to be able to pull it off. The cast initially seemed a little tentative and the setup seemed somewhat plodding and unabsorbing. But it was worth hanging on, because by the middle of the first half the show started to gel and by the second half became as gripping and relentless as the original movie. Perhaps, even, this was a technique by Sorkin and the director, Ed Cohen, to lull the audience and build suspense.
For those not familiar with the plot, Lance Corporal Harold Dawson (Trent Marcum) and PFC Louden Downey (Tanner McDole), marines stationed at Guantanamo Bay, are arrested for the murder of PFC William Santiago (Andy Donnelly), in a “Code Red” (a military hazing) which unintentionally led to his death. The Code Red was ordered by their superiors, bible-thumping Lt. Jonathon Kendrick (Eric Minion) and tough-as-nails Lt. Col. Nathan Jessep (A.J. Ford), who subsequently cover it up and are willing to sacrifice the two marines to maintain the honor of the marines (or to save their own hides, depending on how you look at it). The case is assigned to Daniel Kaffee (Rory Sheridan), a junior-grade lieutenant who is chosen mainly for his lack of courtroom experience and his consistent tendency to plea bargain. But when an internal affairs officer, Lt. Cmdr. Joanne Galloway (Erin Carr), is assigned to the case as well, she challenges Kaffee to search for the truth and uncover the conspiracy.
I appreciated that the cast does not try to mimic or emulate the movie cast but makes the characters their own. Sheridan, in particular, refreshingly plays Kaffee not with the boyish charm or callowness of Tom Cruise, but rather like a young Tom Hanks or Tim Allen, a somewhat overwhelmed everyman who despite his Harvard education grapples with his self-confidence and the legacy of his more daring father. Carr’s Galloway is abrasive, voluble and compulsive, but still approachable, and doesn’t overplay the role of the female outsider in a man’s chauvinistic culture that would be otherwise glaring in today’s #metoo, #timesup culture.
Ford’s Jessup is every bit as compelling and genuine as Nicholson’s without copying his mannerisms.
One consistently engaging aspect of all the performances was the use of body language, for which I give a lot of credit to director Ed Cohen (who as a practicing attorney knows his way around a courtroom in real life as well as on stage). In a play where many of the characters are constrained in their speech because of the military code, their frustrations and insecurities have to be signaled by non-verbal cues. Jessep’s breakdown in the courtroom is brilliantly conveyed in this way, and the actors playing the two defendents, Marcum and McDole, are equally skillful in conveying their doubts and insecurities behind their otherwise by-the-book verbal marine responses. Another supporting role I would single out for praise is Nathan Tubbs as Lt. JG Sam Weinberg, Kaffey’s assistant, whose role may not be large or flashy but is crucial as a more cynical foil to Galloway’s sympathetic response to the defendants.
The set, by Brett Bowling, and costumes, by Caren Brady, are of necessity utilitarian and static, so a heavy burden falls on the lighting designer, Denny Reed, to heighten the drama and set the mood, which is managed quite effectively. The plot exposition, given a lot of similar male characters in uniform, military jargon, and several flashbacks, can be difficult at times, but Cohen as director deftly juggles all those balls and only the most inattentive theatre-goer would have any difficulty connecting with all the characters as the play progresses. Done well, A Few Good Men challenges the audience’s preconceptions, and this production rises to that challenge. Jessup is not an unmitigated monster, and may be a product of his military culture and the tremendous burden of responsibility placed on him as much as those he commands; nor are Dawson and Downey, despite following orders, entirely free of moral culpability. Curiously, in the days before this production I was listening to a lecture on Plato’s Republic, and was struck how enduring these philosophical conundrums are. The questions of truth, justice, and duty to state and one’s conscience are just as relevant now as they were 2400 years ago.
A Few Good Men is playing at the Covedale Theatre through October 7th; tickets can be ordered online at their website, http://www.cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com/ccpa/.