We all remember the pull quote from the 1992 movie “A Few Good Men,” starring Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore and Tom Cruise: “You can’t handle the truth!” It’s become a definitive pop-cultural reference in our ever-growing lexicon of go-tos when placing larger ideas and paradigms in context. But before its numerous Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations, Aaron Sorkin wrote “A Few Good Men” as a play, which opened on Broadway in 1989.
Inspiration for it came from Sorkin’s sister, Deborah, who was sent to Guantanamo Bay after joining the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps. She represented the Marines who were accused of almost killing their colleague through a hazing ritual ordered from an officer. Writing most of the play on cocktail napkins, while Sorkin was then bartending, he turned his singular conversation with his sister into a cornerstone of work that has resonated throughout his career. It also set a precedent of other well-known shows (“West Wing,” “The Newsroom”) and movies (“The Social Network,” “Moneyball”) he would create in paralleling the mire of politics with its social impact on our world at large.
“A Few Good Men” will open as the second show of the debut season from Panache Theatrical Productions this week at Red Barn Studio Theatre. We interviewed director Anthony David Lawson about his love for “A Few Good Men,” the casting process and its timeless resonance to modern-day issues.
encore (e): Tell me why you chose this show as part of your Panache’s premiere season?
Anthony David Lawson (ADL): “A Few Good Men” was the first show I did when I was 16 years old in Virginia Beach. The community theatre scene wasn’t as big as it is here in Wilmington, so it was a whole new world to me. I had always wanted to entertain in some way, and this was my new outlet. It was the first show I ever did twice. I was a part of Bump Production back in 2003. It is very important to me, and I have very strong feelings about the themes that should be focused on within the show. What’s the point of starting a company if you can’t do your favorite shows?
e: What do you love most about Aaron Sorkin’s writing in this show?
ADL: I like how new and unrefined it was. He hadn’t become Aaron Sorkin yet, he was still finding his voice, and I think a lot of interesting things came out of that. I’m not sure I would love the script as much if he had written it after doing “West Wing” and “Newsroom.”
e: Who did you cast as whom, and how are they most impressing you during rehearsals?
ADL: The cast is fantastic. I had no idea who we would get at the auditions and had a lot of pleasant surprises. I pre-cast Jon Stafford as Jessup. I knew he would bring a very real quality to the character and not play him like a caricature of a villain. He doesn’t have to raise his voice to scare the shit out of you.
I had a hard time casting Joanne; I had three or four really strong people read for the part, and to me it’s one of the most important pieces of casting. I think Joanne’s story gets lost in a lot of productions, but I love the idea of this one woman surrounded by men, who constantly think she needs to prove herself. I ultimately went with Morganna Bridgers.
There will be a lot of new faces on the stage as well, which I love. But there’s always a risk going with unknown quantities. I’ve had a hell of a time casting the young Marines—sometimes the younger actors just don’t have the work ethic of the more seasoned actors.
e: Every play is directed with a different approach/hand; what are you doing this time around that has helped you learn and grow as a director?
ADL: This is the first time I’ve gone into a show off book. I know the play so well that if anyone had a question I could instantly give them an answer.
A lot of times with directing, I like discovering the piece along with the actors—we can make decisions together. It is a bit of a relief to lose no time deliberating and simply be able to give definitive answers. That’s not to say I don’t let them make their own choices. If you don’t trust the actors you’ve hired, you have no business being a director.
e: Why do you find the show timeless?
ADL: At its core it’s a question of right and wrong with no definitive answer. What is the cost of freedom? Does the means justify the ends? It is very conflicting when you think about it. The “villain” of the show has a very good point: You may not like the way he does it, but it gets done.
There is a victim, but there doesn’t seem to really be a crime. Setting it primarily in a courtroom where right and wrong is so painfully blurred is key. It’s not about what is right or true; it’s about what you can prove. So, even though it’s set in 1986, it’s still timeless.
e: What themes resonate still today?
ADL: Women still find themselves struggling in a male-dominated world. They’ve made some advances, but almost 30 years later the struggle is still relevant.