Review of A Few Good Men
Citadel Theatre, Shoctor Stage,
Until Oct. 7, 2012
Tickets at www.citadeltheatre.com
By Graham Hicks
You won’t find a more satisfying evening of theatre than the Citadel’s A Few Good Men.
Don’t let the fact it was made into a Hollywood blockbuster film with a troika of stars (Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, Demi Moore) put you off. The film was based on a most complete theatre script, a classic American courtroom drama.
That script has been explored and exploited to its fullest by Citadel director and Artistic Associate James MacDonald, who has his large cast firing on all cylinders. They manoeuver through the technical intricacies of set changes built into the show as effortlessly as fish moving through water.
A Few Good Men is loosely based on a real-life story of Marines at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba (pre-Iraq) taking justice into their own hands to discipline a less-than-committed Marine in their midst.
“Hazing” is one of those long-accepted customs of military and paramilitary organizations the world over, an effective method of dealing with “malingers” that senior commanders covertly approve. In the heat of battle, the last thing wanted is a coward or a soldier paralyzed by fear within the unit. A fellow soldier rough-up is seen as as effective disciplinary method to make the malinger shape up.
But in the preamble to A Few Good Men, things have gone awry. Possibly due to an underlying semi-undetected medical condition. Private William Santiago dies during the routine hazing,
As the show opens, the two soldiers administering the beating have been charged with murder.
And so the ambiguity begins.
The dramatic depth of A Few Good Men lies in the author’s interweaving of the sociological clashes of late 20th century North America: The new, soft, urban culture; the inherent stoicism of the military; the crashing entry into the mix of the assertive female professional; the classic cover-up that becomes unraveled.
And then the icing on the dramatic cake: the voyage from indifference to moral conscience by the chief soft/urban protagonist, the junior naval lawyer Daniel Kaffee, beautifully played by Charlie Gallant.
The culture clashes are what resonate in this show. Kaffee is a dilettante, a wise-cracking, young Me-Generation lawyer putting in his compulsory time in the military. The sooner he can get out the better. Until, that is, the relentless, indignant moral barbs of fellow naval lawyer Cmdr. Joanne Galloway rouse Kaffeeout of his stupor to see the travesty of justice that only he can stop.
Against the wimp who finds his backbone is the overboard Col. Nathan Jessep, commander of Guantanamo Bay Nave Base.
The script unfortunately treats Jessep as domineering, pig-headed, and iron-fisted, a caricature of all in the military that is despised by a liberal establishment.
Yet within that caricature is also humanity, a commander who deeply believes soldiers have the right to play outside the rules when necessary for the sake of the team. Veteran Canadian actor Paul Essiembre, in his very first Citadel appearance, confidently nails Nathan. Within the script’s character distortion, he finds the man’s core, and even his (from the playwright's point of view) twisted humanity.
It’s all these dramatic elements, constructed so compellingly by Sorkin and presented so clearly by Director MacDonald and the large cast, that offer much food for thought.
The feminist lawyer (played by Lora Brovold) is Jessep’s opposite, without sympathy or understanding of military culture: Yet without her persistence, the cover-up would never have been spotted … and maybe this would have been a good thing?
The two soldiers charged with the murder, a non-commissioned officer and a private, who, out of the deepest sense of Marine-ethos honour, elect to plead not guilty to the charge of murder.
Within the playwright’s obvious bias, every character is challenged by his or her own sense of what is right and what is not.
Indeed, if there’s any irritating aspect to A Few Good Men, it’s the fact the story is told from a very liberal point of view that, while painting all with degrees of moral ambiguity, ends up an indictment of the American military establishment.
How, for instance, would the story of A Few Good Men been presented, had it been told from Jessep’s, rather than Kaffee’s, point of view? One could argue that A Few Good Men is very much of its time, in the mid-‘80s. Today, the military – at least in Canada – is held in far higher esteem than it was back then.
A story not dissimilar to a Few Good Men, actually happened in the Canadian military, yet has been told in the public record with great sympathy for an officer’s battle field decision. A now-former Canadian soldier, Capt. Robert Semrau, was court-martialled for allegedly killing a mortally wounded Taliban soldier on an Afghani battlefield in 2008.
In his case, public sympathy was far more in his camp, as doing the right thing in extraordinary circumstances, in effect putting the enemy soldier – with a hole in him the size of a dinner plate, and his legs smashed to smithereens – out of his misery. But a jury at his court-martial follows the letter of the military law, not necessarily its spirit.
Be that as it may, playwright Aaron Sorkin is entitled, as the creator, to take what liberties he did with the story to enhance its artistic license (and marketability). You just don't have to agree with the viewpoint.
A Few Good Men is an intense, compelling and provocative piece of theatre until itself, providing the kindling for excellent and thoughtful post-show conversation. Kudos to all involved in shaping this show.