Saturday, September 12, 2015

A Few Good Men at Lakewood

Quite a few, and more than good  
by Michael Dresdner  

L to R: Tice, Jenkins, Mohs-Hale, Curley     All photos by Kate Paterno-Link 
Last night, on (coincidentally?) 9/11, Lakewood Playhouse opened their 77th season  with an impressive production of Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant drama A Few Good Men. Director Beau Prichard assembled a tight, well-meshed ensemble cast that was nonetheless peppered liberally with outstanding individual performances by some ideally cast actors.  

Lance Cpl. Dawson (Aaron Mohs-Hale), a strong, natural young leader and singularly committed marine, and Pfc. Downey (K. E. Jenkins), a somewhat slow youth who trusts and follows Dawson’s leadership, are accused of murdering a fellow member of Dawson’s unit stationed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. 

L to R: Mohs-Hale, Jenkins 
They are assigned Lt. Kaffee (Jacob Tice) as their lawyer, who brings along his friend and fellow lawyer Lt. Weinberg (Jim Rogers). A prickly female lawyer, Lt. Cmdr. Callowy (Cassie Jo Fastabend) manipulates her way into the third seat of the legal team, and the interplay between the three diverse personalities provides an undercurrent to the already problematic case.

L to R: Tice, Rogers, Fastabend 
Much of the complication revolves around whether or not the hapless defendants were ordered by their superior officers to conduct a “code red,” an unofficial and illegal form of hazing used to bring weak members of a unit into line. This time it turned unintentionally deadly; hence their situation. The complication comes as their loyalty and integrity leaves them trapped between ratting out their superiors and maintaining the unit’s rather closed code of honor.

Though the prosecutor, Lt. Ross (Tom Phiel) and Kaffee are both willing to set up a plea deal of manslaughter, the boys refuse, insisting on nothing less than a plea of innocent. As the case starts to fall apart in the face of uncooperative senior officers and a lack of clear proof, the team decides to gamble it all by calling the camp’s senior officer, Jessup, to the stand.

Lt. Col. Jessup (James A. Gilletti) is a latter day George Armstrong Custer; arrogant, unyielding, and overly self-confident in his own leadership ability. It’s only by tripping him up into blurting out what he really thinks does Kaffee turn the tide of the case.

L to R: Phiel, Gilletti 
As I said, the thoroughly believable ensemble cast was very well chosen and meshed beautifully. Still, allow me the indulgence to wax effusive about just a few of the outstanding performances that particularly caught my fancy, by actors who created some disarmingly believable characters.  

Let’s start with some of the small roles. Darrel Shiley, Jr. was so spot-on in the very minor role as the quintessential military desk jockey Capt. Whitaker that it took me a while to realize the actor was one who I had shared the stage with just last season. Curtis Beech believably crafted the well-intentioned but easily coerced doctor, Cmdr. Stone. Tom Phiel held his own as the prosecutor who would rather make a deal, and must quash his reluctance to press the murky case.  

Mason Quinn did yeoman service as the rigid, single-minded, bible-quoting Lt. Kendrick, making his classic character more Marine than human, and more religious than understanding. In contrast, Christian Carvajal crafted a very believable and frankly very likeable Capt. Markinson, an older officer whose varied past assignments, some in undercover work, nurtured a Marine lifer with a rare combination of wisdom, compassion, honesty, and integrity.   

Mohs-Hale brought a quiet strength to Dawson, making his commitment, leadership, and wide-spread respect entirely believable. He is both guide and bulwark for Jenkins, playing his convincingly weaker and trusting fellow defendant Downey.

L to R: Rogers, Tice 
Jim Rogers as Weinberg created another interesting pairing; his mostly calm, common-sense persona was the yin to Kaffee’s yang, and the two balanced and completed one another beautifully. Cassie Jo Fastabend’s insistent and intentionally annoying Galloway manages to, in turn, goad and shore up the other two.

And that brings us to Jacob Tice, the play’s lead, Lt. Kaffee, and its shining light. It’s no mean feat making a well-recognized movie role your own, but Tice did it in spades. His Kaffee was perfect; a glib, easy-mannered hot-shot whose flippancy is not a cover-up for insecurity, but rather an indulgence only one with real brilliance and skill can comfortably afford. That’s a tough combination to portray, but Tice did it superbly.

A simple set by James Venturini and director Prichard works well as courtroom, jail cell, and several offices with only a few lighting (Daniel Cole) and furniture alterations. The wide range of military costumes (Frances Rankos) was no doubt made even more challenging by the fact that one of the male characters was actually played by a well-disguised female actor.

Unlike some productions in thrust configuration, Prichard’s blocking did not favor the center section but rather worked at all angles. You’ll have great lines of sight no matter where you choose to sit.

And yes, you most certainly should choose to sit somewhere. The opening night audience was a bit sparse, perhaps because it coincided with the first day of the Puyallup Fair (no, I won’t call it by its new name). This production deserves packed houses. Make it a point to be in one of them. That’s an order, private.   

A Few Good Men
Sept. 11 to Oct. 11, 2015
Lakewood Playhouse

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