I usually post reviews here in the order in which I saw the shows. However, I am going to break from this practice this week for two reasons: 1) to give readers some information about a show that has one more weekend in its run, and 2) to take a little more time writing about the storytelling performance I saw last weekend.
Last Sunday afternoon (4/27/08), I drove over to Westfield to see “A Few Good Men” at the Westfield Playhouse. It was written by my buddy, Aaron Sorkin*, directed by Thom Johnson with assistance from Katie Clements, and produced by Bobbi Van Howe with assistance from Doug Gifford.
I had never seen a production of this exciting courtroom drama before, and I have never seen the movie, so I can not say how this particular rural community theatre production compares to other versions. However, I found this production satisfying for several reasons.
The powerful story of two marines who have been accused of killing another marine during a “code red” (a hazing) is easy to follow, in spite of the sometimes dense language, the numerous flashbacks, and the many characters with their varying military ranks.
The suspense in the show builds effectively, as more and more of the truth is revealed. The disturbing bits are truly disturbing, the military uniforms make everyone look good, and the sexual chemistry between the two main lawyers (Andy Peck and Emily Dickos Crickmore) is hot.
The audience serves as jury right from the beginning, even though the actual trial does not come until the end. I very quickly sympathized with the two young, accused marines. Pfc. Louden Downey (Nick Howrey) is easily confused, easily led. Lance Corporal Harold Dawson (hunky Spencer Hayden) is mentally stronger but also a bit blind in his loyalty. Yet I understood him completely when he refused his lawyer’s advice to take a deal because “what happens after six months?” So what if he gets out of jail in six months if he is no longer a marine? Hayden, especially, does a good job of staying in character and reacting appropriately to what’s going on on stage, even when the audience is probably not looking at him.
I wasn’t sure about Lt. Jack Ross (Keith Barber) at first. He has a great laugh, but I wasn’t sure if he was really one of the good guys or not. This was effective acting on Barber’s part: I wasn’t supposed to know for sure until the end.
I knew right away that I did not care for Bible-thumper Lt. Jonathan James Kendrick (David Burch.) His fanatical assertion that “God was watching” gave me the willies, whether or not he had anything to do with Santiago’s death.
I also knew that I did not like the sarcastic megalomaniac Lt. Col. Nathan Jessep (Jim Lucas), either, but I didn’t understand how fully and deeply warped he was until his “I am in the business of saving lives! (so don’t question my actions)” speech towards the end. Lucas as Jessep gave me the willies AND the creeps.
One of the most disturbing scenes is a flashback in which Dawson and Downey are torturing Santiago. Katie Zander plays the bound and gagged victim. Her struggles are chillingly convincing. Anthony Heiter’s recordings of Santiago’s letters pleading for transfer and help are heartbreaking.
Tom Corbett is attractive as the assisting lawyer Lt. j. g. Sam Weinberg to main lawyer Lt. j.g. Daniel Kaffee (Andy Peck.) Weinberg is sometimes funny, sometimes the voice of reason, and always a good father to his baby daughter.
Tom Harnishfegor plays the well-meaning but despairing Capt. Matthew A. Markinson. I wish his story could have ended differently.
Several other actors round out the cast: Serenity Zander plays the stern, no-nonsense Capt. Isaac (Isabelle) Whitaker. Director Thom Johnson plays the pressured Cmdr. Dr. Walter Stone and Corp. Thomas. Todd Crickmore plays the fair-minded Judge Julius Alexander Randolph and Corp. Dunn. Batel Miller plays Tom (Jen), Dave, and Co-Counsel. Shayne Collier plays Sergeant at Arms, Corp. Hammaker, and an MP. All of them enrich the show.
The four Corps. in the above paragraph appear all together in a scene in which Kendrick gives Dawson the “Code Red” order. I wonder if these men were also the ones responsible for doing the “Sound off!” marching chants back stage during scene changes. In any case, the chants are quite strong and add another effective layer to the military feeling of the show.
The numerous military uniforms seem authentic, and they fit well. I felt immersed in the military culture along with the characters. (Costumes designed by Thom Johnson and Katie Clements.)
The debris of empty Chinese take-out cartons and Yoohoo bottles in Kaffee’s apartment looks authentic, too. (Props by stage manager Kathy Watson.)
The clever set – which was designed, constructed, and lit by John Sampson – makes excellent use of the intimate space. Panels fold out and in to create space for a jail cell, an office, an apartment, a military base, and a military courtroom.
The audience is warned in both the program and the curtain talk that there will be a loud gunshot, but I still jumped a mile when it happened. However, I enjoyed the military marches played as pre-show music and at other times. (Lights/Sound by Breena Sullivan.)
I confess that I went to see this production with very low expectations because I knew it had not been fully cast until close to opening. The main reason I went was as a way of saying “thank you” to a friend who had supported me during a difficult time. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the show. It moved me. I would have been glad I went to see it even if I hadn’t known any of the cast or crew.
Westfield Playhouse’s production of “A Few Good Men” continues through Sunday, May 4. Please call 317-587-8719 to make a reservation. All active military who arrive in uniform are admitted free. Admission for veterans and retired military is only $5.
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com
*Hah! I wish I actually knew Aaron Sorkin, but I do not. I do, however, have all seven seasons of “The West Wing” on DVD and I re-watch them regularly. He created that show, so I feel affection for him even without knowing anything about him in real life.