Even before Aaron Sorkin, then a young writer and actor struggling to make his way in New York, had finished work on his new play, producer David Brown wanted to buy the film rights to the script. Sorkin wisely agreed. Part of the deal was that Brown would also bankroll the stage version, which premiered to great acclaim on Broadway in 1989. The subsequent film, directed by Rob Reiner and starring Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, and Jack Nicholson, was released three years later. In a weird way, then, A Few Good Men came about because of the movie that would eventually be made of it.
This historical oddity in fact tells you a lot about the play. A Few Good Men is a high-octane courtroom drama about a team of young military lawyers appointed to defend two marines who are accused of murdering one of their fellows at Guantanamo Bay. The plot unfolds to the tune of a high-level military conspiracy and cover-up, and along the way, the audience is treated to just about every prime time TV cliché of which the theatre is capable.
The pace is so relentless, the flashbacks are so abrupt, the sly Perry Mason-esque moments of “I just have one more little question” are so predictable, and (in the current production by Flat Rock Playhouse) the actors are just so darn good-looking, that pretty soon one begins to feel that one is in fact watching a TV drama. The only thing to dispel this illusion is the occasional appearance of actual video footage — edited in the best prime-time style, of course.
Director Vincent Marini (Flat Rock’s new Artistic Director) makes no bones about what he’s up to here; in the program notes he even cites the film version as his inspiration. Our difference of opinion on Tom Cruise’s acting skills notwithstanding, I have to admit I have rarely seen a production so successfully eschew the theatrical for the cinematic. And frankly, Marini is probably right to do the show like this, for the same reason David Brown was right when he looked at the playscript and saw a Hollywood blockbuster. The play really is constructed this way.
But Marini and his design team have taken it a step further by staging the show in the Historic Henderson County Courthouse. During Act I, the intimate audience is seated in the Community Room, which has been ingeniously transformed by scenic designer James Johnson into a highly versatile stage that still manages to suggest, with its clean metal scaffolding wrapped in barbwire, the characteristically creepy high-tech / low-tech atmosphere of a military base. Combined with Allen Sanders’s evocative sound design and Michael Mauren’s spare lighting, the effect is quite convincing.
For Act 2, most of which concerns the actual court martial, the audience is shepherded into the courtroom proper. The change of seating and point of view is welcome, though I continue to wonder how Sanders managed to light this cavernous space enough for us to see the actors at all. Given the layout of a courtroom, there are some ineluctable sightline issues — especially when counsel is addressing the bench — but Marini and the actors have succeeded as best they can in keeping the action where the audience can appreciate it.
The cast is above reproach. Few and far between are the moments when their performances fall short of top-notch professionalism. And they are all well-cast. Jim Sorensen convinces as the lazy Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, who heads up the defense team and who eventually learns to step up to the plate. (This is the Tom Cruise character in the film, for those of you who are wondering.) His at once idealistic, determined, and vulnerable provocateuse, Lieutenant Commander Joanne Galloway (Demi Moore) is played by Eleanor Handley, who matches and outmatches him step for step and who seems to have no difficulty at all holding her own as the only woman in a cast of sixteen. And as the arch-villain, Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Jessep, commander at the base where the alleged murder has taken place, Charles Wagner gives Jack Nicholson a run for his money. In every scene, Wagner plays marvelously with the knife before slipping it in and giving it the old diabolical twist.
Unfortunately, the cast seems to have been directed to shout their lines. I’m assuming this reflects an attempt to convey something about military culture, rather than, say, a confusion about the difference between decibel levels and dramatic conflict. As every young theatre artist has to learn, shouting and fisticuffs are more often a substitute for real conflict than they are an expression of it. Be that as it may, the cumulative effect of the shouting in this production, particularly in Act 1, is to cause the conflict to “flatline.” It’s a relief when someone finally holds his or her fire for a moment, or delivers a line at a more or less normal volume. Then we begin to hear something human begin to speak out from behind the knee-jerk aggression. Kelley Hinman manages this beautifully in his brief scene as Captain Whitaker, and throughout the play, Brian Lafontaine, who plays the “third wheel” on the defense team, Lieutenant Sam Weinberg, is a constant and refreshing source of humanity with his wry one-liners and his expressive eyes.
The play has some “strong language,” though I imagine audience members who’ve actually served in the military will find that warning quaint indeed. The real bomb the play drops is not the proverbial f-bomb, but the highly vexed question about “duty” and “honor.” What happens when the two are conflated, when young soldiers are trained to believe that the only honor is in following orders — even if those orders are immoral? The play raises this question profoundly. Colonel Jessep expresses one half of the argument in terms it is difficult to refute: in order to be safe we must be prepared to grant our protectors, the military, certain prerogatives. After all, they’re the ones putting their lives on the line to ensure our security. But this argument is based on an assumption that neither Jessep nor any other character, nor, finally, the playwright himself ever questions: the assumption that we are in fact constantly under threat of attack. In a different context, this would be called paranoia. But along with lust, greed, vengeance, vaulting ambition, o’erweening pride and yes, love, it’s the stuff of which those memorable dreams we call drama are made.
A Few Good Men, by Aaron Sorkin. Direction: Vincent Marini. Technical Direction: Bruce Bailey. Stage Management: Johanna Erlenbach. Lighting Design: Michael Mauren. Sound Design: Allen Sanders. Scenic Design: James Johnson. Costume Design: Ashli Arnold. Props: Jennifer Williams. Featuring: Chris Allison, Dustin Brayley, Damian Duke Dominique, Eric English, James Faucett, Eleanor Handley, Kelley Hinman, James Holloway, Brian Lafontaine, Joshua Looney, Kevin McKee, Regan McLellan, Ralph Redpath, Jim Sorensen, Nathan Thomas, Charles F. Wagner IV. Show runs through October 31. Performances: Wednesdays through Saturdays at 2 p.m. (except Fridays) and 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m. at the Historic Henderson County Courthouse. Seating is extremely limited. Check website for full details: flatrockplayhouse.org. Tickets $34. 828-693-0731.