Military Madness 

Following orders in "A Few Good Men"

Uncle Sam is back for action, and etiquette be damned, he's pointing his finger right at you.The United States armed forces report that they are underenrolled, registering the lowest numbers of recruits since the Carter administration. My guess is that the $6,000 signing bonus offered earlier this week will help give the numbers a quick boost. It was certainly enough to make me look into eligibility requirements. On the other hand, a touring version of A Few Good Men, coming to a recruitment center near you, is not the antidote.

Aaron Sorkin's script captures an underdog legal battle between a junior-grade Navy lawyer and the enforcers of the unwritten codes that guide Marine life. Although there are no civilian characters to raise arms against the masters of war, the play leaves the audience with a sense of revulsion for the fictionalized account of hazing, covering up and "transcending the system" that has come to characterize military zealots.

If you listen carefully, beneath the monotonous drone of military-speak, you can hear the echoes of another theme being sounded. In an age where nerds and outcasts are coming under closer scrutiny as both the victims and perpetrators of violent tantrums, A Few Good Men focuses on the death of a young recruit who was beaten up and killed by members of his unit, "because he couldn't run very fast." Sorkin pits the Marine-clad Goliath against his version of David in the dual forms of Pfc. William Santiago, the victim, and Lt.j.g. Daniel Kaffee, the scruple-challenged young lawyer who has settled 39 straight cases without ever working the inside of a courtroom.

Director Paul Mathewson makes it look easy enough to capture the military feel, but for the production to work, the audience needs more than a successful suggestion of the trappings and mannerisms of its characters' vocation. Sorkin gives his players the gift of characters with both a fully functioning faade and subtextual depth that recognizes the human ingredients necessary to flesh out the uniforms. Too often, Mathewson's cast settles for flat portraits of these three-dimensional characters, honing in on the mechanical speech and movement without finding the kernels of individuality that distinguish each character.

Dawson and Downey, the two tight-lipped defendants struggling with their surface-level obedience to rank and hierarchy and their deep-rooted instinct for self-preservation, are good examples of carefully internalized interpretations. Jamie Smith and Justin Mattsen convince the audience that their characters are still holding out the dimmest glimmer of hope beneath their inevitable demise after signing confessions of murder. Mattsen's Downey slips in the briefest of pauses and hesitations when his lawyer uses his family to reach him on a human level, and Smith's Dawson utilizes an economy of stance and stature to express his wavering respect for his own unorthodox attorney.

At the other end of the expressive continuum, we find Col. Jessep, the play's psychotic villain. From Jessup's first maniacally mechanical entrance, Mark Hennessy offers an unflinching incarnation of the madness consuming those who willingly shackle themselves with the chain of command. But although Hennessy can shake his audience with the absolute corruption of his power, his interpretation misses the texture and breadth that forces us to question whether he may, in fact, need to be above the law. Hennessy has the memorable line challenging the court's ability to "handle the truth," but unfortunately, with the production's muffled fire power, the truth is all too easy to take.

The play's heaviest burden falls on the shoulders of Roderick Garrison and Alysabeth Clements as Kaffee and Galloway, the underdog attorney who'd rather be playing softball and his unlikely partner, a meticulous stickler who is Kaffee's polar opposite in everything from humor to hubris. The battle to salvage a sense of humanity in the context of a military whose code of "Unit -- Corps -- God -- Country" leaves no place for the individuals personified in these two characters, ostensibly working together but so often seeming at cross purposes. These are the two characters whose fate is really at stake, but Garrison and Clements sacrifice the sense of discovery and the subtleties of process for the rote recitation they employ to project their military sensibility.

A Few Good Men thrives on the chinks through which characters can release their humanity, but this Star Bars production is distracted by the armor shielding us from the vulnerability of revelation.


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