Panache Theatrical Productions’ sophomore offering at Red Barn Studio Theatre is Aaron Sorkin’s “A Few Good Men.” Given our proximity to Camp Lejeune and the swirling ethical questions regarding combat engagements from Abu Ghraib to Benghazi and more, this show seems to be a particularly relevant choice.
Morganna Bridgers brings to life the tightly wound, overachieving Lt. Cdr. JoAnne Galloway, a woman who has chosen to play in the men’s sandbox and is determined to prove her worth. She has become intrigued and concerned with what appears to be an open-shut case of murder at the Marine Corps base in Guantanamo Bay. Were it not for her tenacity, no one would think twice about the two young Marines accused. Lance Cpl. Harold Dawson (Brandon Ewers) and Private Louden Downey (Nick Reed) are accused of poisoning Private William Santiago (Phillip Antonino). Galloway doesn’t believe they are guilty. Through sheer determination, she succeeds in getting their case transferred and the two granted a day in court. Unfortunately, she finds herself saddled with two additional Jag officers to try the case: Lt. J.G. Daniel Kaffee (Josh Lowry) and Lt. J.G. Sam Weinberg (Jake Huber).
For all of Galloway’s uptight dynamo personality, she just isn’t very likable. Kaffee is every “Big Man on Campus” who got by on charm, good connections and entitlement. (They don’t exactly get along.) Lowry is convincing as the poor, little rich boy who’s secretly wounded at heart (oh, whine!). With the growth he has to take during the course of the show, Lowry portrays an interesting and captivating struggle. Most of his work has to come from an internal issue made external: It’s not big and loud or showy, but it has to be convincing on a very human and realistic level. Huber as Weinberg is the peacemaker smoothing the waves to move forward.
Together this team takes on a monumental task—and it all begins with a trip to Cuba. Guantanamo Bay is under the command of Lt. Col. Nathan Jessup (Jon Stafford), who rules his dominion through Capt. Markinson (Rich Deike) and Lt. Kendrick (Kaleb Edley). Whether folks have seen the film adaptation of “A few Good Men” or not, chances are they’ve seen clips of Jack Nicholson’s performance—especially the famous, “You can’t handle the truth” monologue. The pressure to mimic Nicholson, or to try to outdo him, has to be intimidating and immense to an actor. Perhaps to a younger or less-experienced performer, that would be the path to take. Director Anthony Lawson cast Jon Stafford in the role, and Stafford gives an organic and realistic rendition of Jessup that is anything but a parody. He doesn’t go straight to the dark side and dwell in anger. This is a man who has so fully taken on his responsibilities—and believes in his own infallibility—that losing his temper with lesser people is a waste of his time. He gives orders; those orders are followed. End of discussion.
The only person in his life still prepared to try to speak truth to his power is Capt. Markinson. Deike’s rendition of Markinson comes as a career soldier who is a problem-solver. There is right, there is wrong, and there is more than one solution. The solution for the greatest good is the best solution. Watching his spiral of frustration, anger, action, and ultimate sacrifice provides an interesting counterbalance. As the lawyers are struggling to grow upward, he is sinking and making the best of the situation while he can. (I almost didn’t want to watch his face during his final speech, but he is very compelling.)
Markinson is caught between two unbending men: Jessup and his acolyte, Kendrick. Edley gives us the terrifying true believer; there is nothing that can shake his rock-solid certainty. His eyes flash with it, his jaw clenches and spine is pulled ram-rod straight with the intensity of what he has been divinely selected to carry out. He might be more terrifying than Jessup.
Because Stafford’s Jessup has grown into his sense of ownership of his dominion, he has earned it and wears it with practiced ease. Edley’s Kendrick doesn’t have the experience to balance direct power he has over the daily lives of people—and his barely latent sadism is given free rein too early in life without an appropriate target (like a real enemy instead of someone entrusted to his care). He gave me shivers, really.
The play predates the famous film starring Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise, and is a more ensemble-oriented telling of the story. Truly, this ensemble is all wonderful. Jamie S. Davenport’s dry delivery of several devastating jokes break the tension in key places and gives the audience a chance to take a deep breath. Nick Reed surprises as Downey; he usually plays characters with great confidence. To see him confused, under-informed and constantly addled is more of a stretch. He is as sweet, charming and empathy-producing as a lost kitten. He also is the perfect foil to Lance Cpl. Dawson, who has become very sure of the world. Ewers actually reminds me very much of my first friend to enlist in the service after 9/11: projecting certainty, strength, honor, and determination.
For all the ensemble nature of the show, one part was written to stand out like a sore thumb: the only woman in the cast who, no matter how hard she works and how much she achieves, will never be one of the boys. Bridgers could easily overplay this hand. Instead, she really hits the notes with precision. We can’t help but root for Galloway—and cheer for her when she stands up to Jessup—but also cringe at all her missteps in unspoken cues of the boys’ club.
Sorkin’s writing rides the waves of human emotion in rapid-fire changes tinged with dramatic tension. From moment to moment, we experience laughter, tears, heartbreak, hope, anticipation, disappointment, redemption, disgust, distrust, and illumination. All the brilliant writing in the world won’t guarantee a great production. Lawson brings vision and the cast deliver on all fronts. “A Few Good Men” is an excellent production not to be missed.