A Few Good Men
by John Stoltenberg
Exploding onstage like a fusillade of biting wit and badinage, A Few Good Men is getting a crackling-good production that makes this power-packed 1991 play feel like it was ripped from today’s headlines.
Doesn’t matter whether you’ve seen the Hollywood movie version. Over at the Keegan Theatre, it’s all brand-new again. So be forewarned: It could get you in your gut and go off in your brain.
Aaron Sorkin wrote A Few Good Men on cocktail napkins when he was 27 years old while working as a bartender at the Palace Theatre in New York City. (The play became a Broadway hit, then a smash film, and Sorkin went on to write such masterworks as the television series The West Wing and the film The Social Network.) Sorkin constructed the play’s rivetingly clockwork plot from a true story: Some young Marines at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base were being tried in a military court for hazing, and nearly killing, a fellow Marine. It was a story Sorkin had learned of from his sister, a recent law school grad, who was on her way to join the military legal team that would defend them.
A Few Good Men centers on a military legal team also defending young Marines, Lance Cpl. Harold W. Dawson and Pfc. Louden Downey (Jon Hudson Odom and Adi Stein, both spot on), who are charged with hazing—and, in Sorkin’s telling, killing—one Pfc. William T. Santiago (the immensely moving Nathaniel Mendez). The ranking officer on the three-member defense team is Lt. Cmdr. Joanne Galloway (the crisply effective Brianna Letourneau). Even as we laugh through Act One at Sorkin’s trademark repartee, we watch engrossed as Galloway parries and thrusts over tactics and legal maneuvers with her two male colleagues, LtJG Sam Weinberg (the touchingly nebbishy Michael Innocenti) and LtJG Daniel A. Kaffee (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, whose impressive range builds in Act Two to its own emotional detonation).
The second act revolves around the trial—which by now is steeped in so much suspense that the nearly two-and-a-half-hour performance flies by faster than a fleet of jets. The prosecution—making “the people’s” case—is headed by Capt. Jack Ross (the intriguingly intense Bradley Foster Smith). Among witnesses called to the stand is the slightly befuddled Cpl. Jeffrey Owen Howard (played with scene-grabbing humor and pathos by Kevin Hasser). Finally, as evidence and tensions mount, the defense team calls the base commander, Col. Nathan Jessep (played with gruff grit by Mark A. Rhea), who turns out to be their pièce de résistance: Prefaced famously by the line “You can’t handle the truth!,” Rhea’s meltdown-implosion as Jessup becomes a stun gun.
Directed by Jeremy Skidmore with the tight precision of a drill team, the entire production takes place on a multilevel set that features a humongous tipped-over flagpole from which a colossal American flag once proudly waved…but now lies inert over nearly a third of the stage. Could this provocative scenic design by Steven Royal be sending the incendiary message that our nation’s flag has fallen?
Military justice is much contested nowadays. See, most notably, current efforts in Congress to shunt military sexual-assault cases to independent military prosecutors, on the theory (to paraphrase freely:) that the chain of command can’t handle the truth. As a result there are now not a few good Americans—deeply patriotic, indebted to armed forces personnel for their sacrifice, some service members themselves—for whom “military justice” has become an oxymoron. And that’s the zeitgeist context in which Keegan Theatre’s fresh new Few Good Men is the most relevant and resonant theater event going on in DC.
Asked in an interview about why his writing often ventures into politics, Sorkin said:
I’m not politically sophisticated. All of my experience, training, and education has been in the theater…. I like writing romantically and idealistically, and there’s just a treasure trove of stories in that area. Just the whole idea of patriotism and democracy and the struggles that we have in this country…I find those things very emotional. As a dramatist, you’re looking for points of friction, and there are all kinds of points of friction in those areas…. But I’m not Clifford Odets, who wrote about politics because that was his way of being an activist. I’ve met activists—I’m not one of them. I’ve never marched anyplace. Those guys are for real.
In Sorkin’s A Few Good Men, all the military lawyers—almost shockingly—are “the good guys”: hardworking idealists, trained professionals, earnestly striving for what they honestly believe is achievable justice inside the system. And in the end (spoiler alert:) they get “the bad guy,” the culprit whom the system correctly holds accountable. Doesn’t matter how protected or highly positioned the criminal; justice must be served…and is. As a result, to watch A Few Good Men at this moment in time—knowing what one cannot not know about (for instance:) rampant abuses of power, from sex crimes to war crimes to crimes against the constitution—is to rediscover something inspiring and powerfully moving about the way justice in America was meant to be…but isn’t.
While activists take that “point of friction” to the streets, we can thank Sorkin and Keegan for taking it stirringly to the theater.
Also posted in my Magic Time! column on DC Metro Theater Arts, where it is accompanied by a fascinating video interview with Aaron Sorkin.