Thalian Association returns to the USS Battleship North Carolina fantail again in time for our Independence holiday. This time around they’re bringing to life Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial.”
Wouk is part of a group of mid-century American men who got their start in WWII writing about military experiences. Other famous fraternity members include James Michener, Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. (Aside: Notice the ones whose careers flourished made sure their follow-up work wasn’t the same as the book that made the “big break.”) “The Caine Mutiny” novel is much more involved than the play, which concentrates primarily on the trial of Stephen Maryk (Nathan Mattheis) who relieved Captain Queeg (Mark Deese) of command of the USS Caine in the midst of a typhoon. Barney Greenwald (Stuart Pike) has been appointed to defend Maryk with four days notice—a task he clearly does not want to pursue.
Wouk’s work as a writer weaves the experiences of secular Judaism in the American experience, with a very personal spiritual journey that Judaism has been for him. Though his early work, like “Caine Mutiny,” comes at it in a somewhat circular fashion (much more so than his novel “Marjorie Morningstar”), it isa this thread of the secular, cultural aspects of Judaism that bind and make the spiritual relatable in his work. “This is My God” and “The Will To Live On,” two memoirs Wouk published almost a half-century apart, did more to open the spiritual aspects of Jewish life for his readership than anyone expected, even perhaps his editor. Maybe it is because he is one of the most articulate of the generation of young Jewish people to have fought against the Holocaust in WWII. That combined horror and responsibility must imprint upon one’s brain and soul.
All of this is a long preamble to Barney Greenwald’s character who, though considered a gifted trial attorney by his peer on the prosecution, John Challee (Jim Bowling), still sees himself (and is seen by others) as Jewish first and attorney second—in spite of the war that they have been fighting. It baffles him. In the midst of an attempt to save western civilization and stop mass killings of millions, he has been called to defend this absurd and unimportant case of infighting.
Isn’t the Navy supposed to be fighting a war? Not each other?
Stuart Pike’s character does convince everyone he really doesn’t want to be there or defend the case. He carries an irritation with his client and everyone else the way Pig Pen’s dirt swirled around him in “Peanuts.”
Bowling’s Challee is the energy that moves Act 1 and begins to introduce elements of drama to the evening. Mattheis is uninterested in his trial (indeed he yawns frequently), and Captain Blakely (Patrick Raynor), the judge, struggled with so many microphone issues throughout the evening, most of his contributions to the plot were lost on the audience. But Bowling does his best to communicate the trial is not proceeding as one would anticipate. Thank heavens! It was starting to look a lot less like a courtroom drama and more like a courtroom recitation of the stenographer’s most boring day ever.
Things get interesting as witnesses testify. Charles Calhoun as Lt. Thomas Keefer is really delightful. With his sweet melodic Louisiana accent, he gives us the artist in the military: the distiller of human experience and foibles under pressure. Impressed with himself, he can be a bit much or he can be a best friend—just depends upon the day.
But it is Dalton Crocker as the signalman who witnessed the mutiny, who brings comedic relief. I wasn’t laughing at him but in sympathy—I know how he feels, how uncomfortable he is. He gives us a young man caught up in war and a situation, neither of which he understands. He is completely without guile or cunning, and so clearly intimidated by the courtroom, merely trying to figure out what will get him out fastest. I empathized with him.
I also loved Caitlin Walker as Dr. Forrest Lundeen. In Robert Altman’s 1988 film adaptation, Lundeen was played by a man. But making the part female in the 1940s adds another layer of tension and dimension to questions and the legal tongue-twisting that takes place. There are two ways she could play this: flirt with the men (a time-honored strategy) or go very prim, proper and aggressive in defending her accomplishments and opinions. Lundeen chooses the latter, and it is a pretty accurate depiction of a woman who has fought to get where she is: first in medical school and with her colleagues and then in the military.
Joshua Miller as Lt. Willis Seward Keith turns in an accurate performance of a very self-assured, high-testosterone young man who believes himself deeply wronged.
For picking a venue to drive home the message of “Caine Mutiny,” there couldn’t be a more appropriate setting. Stephanie Aman’s costumes are wonderfully and beautifully detailed. She managed to make distinctions of rank visually clear to even the least-experienced layman. As a major visual element, she communicated volumes.
“Making a courtroom procedure exciting is tough,” my date commented on the way home. “There isn’t a lot of action, except people talking to each other.”
“I have to disagree with you there, and my rebuttal is ‘A Few Good Men,’” I responded. “But you have to really ratchet up the tension and the interactions between characters.”
“OK, yeah, ‘Witness for the Prosecution,’” he conceded. “But the Battleship is an amazing venue, and it’s always great to go visit.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “Hanging out on the ship after dark is awesome. Seeing a show is like icing on the cake.”
But it is also a venue with some very real challenges. All outdoor theatre suffers from fear of rain.
In addition, the stage and lighting must be taken down every evening and re-assembled each night before the proverbial curtain goes up. Trying to light for outdoor theatre is very different from a proscenium theatre, which is protected from the elements and has all the best equipment for special effects any lighting designer could want. Unfortunately, if anyone sits house left, almost every time Greenwald questions a witness, Maryk is left in shadows. Now that could be a great metaphor for the relationship between the two characters in this piece, but we also can’t see how the accused is responding to events.
On opening night, the show had to compete with the Downtown Sundown Concert Series across the river, fireworks and jets flying overhead. As opening nights go, it was a trial-by-fire for the performers. But the show must go on! And they made sure the audience got a show. I am sure after getting opening weekend under their belt, some rough patches will be corrected.
The ultimate message of “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” is to choose your enemies wisely and not get distracted from the war by petty battles that don’t matter. Staging aboard the Battleship North Carolina, which was a floating city home to hundreds of men at a time during the most stressful and dangerous part of their lives, really shines a light on what collective sacrifice can mean. It also reminds how leadership is about making good decisions for the good of all—not just the good of a few.