SALT LAKE CITY — Aaron Sorkin is a successful screenwriter, producer, and playwright, and most of us have seen one of his works, whether or not we realize it or not. However, in the 1980’s he was a struggling actor and playwright bartending to make ends meet. He had a conversation with his sister, a lawyer, about defending a group of Marines at Guantanamo Bay, and the idea for A Few Good Men was born. Sorkin is said to have written much of the play on cocktail napkins.
In full disclosure, the movie based on the play A Few Good Men came out in 1992, when I was only 13 years old, so it was not a show that I knew much about or paid much attention to. Fast forward 22 years, I still had not had any experience with the play or movie, nor could I tell you much about it except that Jack Nicholson said “You can’t handle the truth” in it. This can actually be beneficial for writing a review. I came into Pioneer Theatre Company’s production with very few expectations or preconceived notions.
The storyline follows two young marines who have been accused of murdering a third marine. They insist that they were following orders for a “code red,” a military hazing. Those in power deny that the orders exist, and the subsequent story surrounds the lawyers working to uncover the truth.
The set design for this production was simple yet rather ingenious. Fashioned with a bunch of chain link fences on different stage flies allowed me to feel the difference between the accused in jail and the characters who were able to walk free. Set designer James Noone‘s decision to maintain that distinction throughout the play helped keep the visualization of the story strong. Lighting designer Paul Miller also deserves to be praised for his contribution to this production. The scenes vary from a court room to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, sometimes the middle of the day and sometimes at night. Some of the action is lighthearted and some is very dramatic in nature, and yet Miller masterfully kept the lighting appropriate for every scene. The stark differences in lighting between pivotal scenes (such as the final court room scene) and the lighter parts of the play, were essential in the flow of this production.
Though the subject matter was deep and somewhat disturbing, Sorkin’s writing and Karen Azenberg‘s direction kept the show exciting and interesting. The two young men who portrayed the accused, Harold Dawson (played by Corey Allen) and Louden Downey (played by Austin Archer), have the most difficult roles in the show. According to the play to be a marine is to follow the code of unit, corps, God, and country. Therefore, even being accused of murder does not the mean to show emotion or deviating from exact obedience. What is left is for two young men to be afraid for their very lives but not to show it, to still follow orders and put their trust in their superiors. What impressed me about these Allen and Archer was that I could see the pain and fear in their eyes in each scene. They were able to accurately portray how young men in their position would have been required to respond, despite their own feelings and misgivings. In the final scene, when a moment of emotion is finally allowed, Allen delivered probably one of the best and most emotional lines of the night when he acknowledged that there was an officer present.
Kate Middleton played the only woman in the show, Lieutenant Commander Joanne Galloway, a lawyer who has taken an interest in the case, hoping to be appointed. She is passed up for a less seasoned lawyer, Lieutenant J.G. Daniel Kaffee, played by Joe Tapper. Middleton had a strong performance, and gave an interesting take on the difficulties of being a woman in a high ranking position in the military. There are many moments where the casual insults, comments, and abuses would have caused an emotional or angry response, but Middleton portrayed the character with humor and discipline expected of military personnel. Tapper excelled at bringing a balance to the play and his looser character, as well as helping me see the contrast of just how disciplined the rest of the characters were.
Amos Omer (playing Lieutenant Jonathan James Kendrick) and Torsten Hillhouse (playing Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Jessep) portrayed no-nonsense leaders at Guantanamo Bay who run a tight operation and feel that their methods of controlling others are always justified. Omer was able to show the intimidation that would be essential in getting full obedience from his subordinates. Hillhouse’s performance was haunting because he showed how his character believed that he was doing the right thing in hurting others. In the famous “You can’t handle the truth” monologue, Hillhouse was able to help me see Jessep’s main weakness: that he was one hundred percent right. One wonders how a person can get to that place of feeling that there are not consequences to heinous actions, and yet Hillhouse made such an attitude not only believable, but honestly accurate.
Because I enjoyed this play so much I went home to watch the critically acclaimed movie because I did not believe that it could be as excellent as Pioneer’s production. While the movie was excellent, there is and always will be something stronger about seeing this story live on stage. Cameras and editing can create great drama and entertainment, but live pain, fear, and humor, are more powerful in the moment that it happens. Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of A Few Good Men is an artistic, timely reminder of just how confused each of us can and do become in the face of power.