This review of A Few Good Men at The Gallery Players was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
A Few Good Men
Written by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Mark Harborth
The Gallery Players
199 14th Street
Park Slope, New York 11215
The story relayed in this play is loosely based on real-life events that took place at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in July 1986. Aaron Sorkin's sister, a JAG lawyer, worked on a case involving members of Rifle Security Company, Windward Side, 2nd Platoon, who believed one of their number was a malingerer who had informed about a Marine illegally firing across the fence into Cuba. In a retaliatory hazing (called a "Code Red"), ten Marines seized and blindfolded him, stuffed a rag in his mouth, beat him and shaved his head. The hazed Marine was injured but did not die. Seven of the ten Marines involved accepted "other than honorable discharges" as part of a plea bargain but three refused to accept a plea bargain and went to Court. The lead Marine in the hazing was found not guilty of aggravated battery but guilty of the misdemeanor charge of simple assault. He was sentenced to time served and was returned to active duty. In Aaron Sorkin's version of the story, the hazed Marine, Private First Class William T. Santiago, dies due to an undetected heart problem and the two Marines who choose to go to trial are found not guilty of murder but guilty of "conduct unbecoming of a United States Marine" for which they are sentenced to time served and given a dishonorable discharge. A Few Good Men had its world premiere at the Heritage Repertory Theatre at the University of Virginia's Department of Drama on September 19, 1989, before being transferred to the Kennedy Center, and ultimately opening on Broadway at The Music Box Theatre on November 15, 1989. It closed on January 26, 1991, after 15 previews and 497 performances. Aaron Sorkin adapted his work into a screenplay for a 1992 film starring Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, and Demi Moore.
We expect our servicemen to follow orders. As Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Jessep says, "We follow orders or people die." It is their duty and responsibility to do so. A failure to obey an order can get you court-martialed, or executed. You are not permitted to use your own judgment as to which orders you choose to follow. Yet, if later, someone determines the order was illegal, the precedent set by the Nuremberg Trials not only punishes the official who gave the illegal order but also punishes the soldier who followed it. This never seemed fair to me. In this play, Lance Corporal Harold W. Dawson, arrested with Private First Class Louden Downey, claims Lieutenant Jonathan James Kendrick, his superior officer, gave him a direct order to "Code Red" Private First Class William T. Santiago for "breaking the chain of command, threatening to rat out a fellow Marine, and for being a Marine who can't run from here to there without claiming to be suffering from heat exhaustion." Dawson and Downey seized and blindfolded Santiago, stuffed a rag in his mouth, taped it, beat him, and started to shave his head when they noticed blood coming out of his nose. They stopped the Code Red and called an ambulance but it was too late. Santiago died from an acute pulmonary hemorrhage due to lactic acidosis. Dawson and Downey were good soldiers who followed orders and believed in Unit, Corps, God & Country. They initially signed a confession admitting they intentionally murdered Santiago but Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway (Special Counsel for Internal Affairs in the Naval Judge Advocate General's Corps, based at JAG Headquarters at the Washington Navy Yard) set the confessions aside, had counsel appointed,and moved the court martial from Guantanamo Bay to Washington, D.C.
A lot of the drama in this play involves how the three defense attorneys (Lieutenant Junior Grade Daniel Kaffee, Lieutenant Junior Grade Sam Weinberg & Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway) get Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Jessep, the Base Commander, to admit he ordered the Code Red. Dawson & Downey are elated but as Sam Weinberg predicted, they were still found guilty of a lesser charge and dishonorably discharged. The military men who truly dishonored themselves in this play were Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Jessep, Lieutenant Jonathan James Kendrick, Commander Walter Stone, and Captain Matthew A. Markinson. Jessep officially discouraged Code Reds but,off the record, felt they were an invaluable tool to be used when a Marine falls out of line. After ordering Kendrick to order Dawson to give the Code Red, both Jessep and Kendrick deny having given the order. Jessep lies again when he tells defense counsel the decision had been made to transfer Santiago and proceeds to alter records to back up this fabricated story. Since Dr. Stone may have missed an underlying heart condition Santiago may have had, he goes along with Jessep and reports the rag stuffed in Santiago's mouth was most likely laced with poison. Dawson & Downey are pressured to sign a murder confession and Jessep is content to frame them viewing their unjust punishment as "smothering a grenade by taking the fall." Captain Markinson goes off the grid, engages in armed robbery, and eventually kills himself. It would have been much easier and more honorable to stay on base and testify against Jessep and Kendrick. Finally, since we are identifying bad actors here, even Lieutenant Junior Grade Daniel Kafee is a nasty alcoholic and asshole who punches his own client when he is alone in a cell with him. Galloway rightfully doesn't have much confidence in him as a trial lawyer but later claims he is the only attorney who can win this for them ("I know how to fight but you know how to win"). On a similar contradictory note, Dawson, who originally signed a murder confession, later refuses to sign a confession for simple assault, something he was clearly guilty of.
This is an outstanding production of A Few Good Men with extremely talented actors in all of the roles. There isn't a weak link in the chain of command. You will have your favorites based on whom you most identify with but I can assure you all the actors are professional and top-notch. As the only woman in the cast, Justine Campbell-Elliott, as Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway, more than holds her own, and Sam Parrott is outstanding as Lieutenant Junior Grade Sam Weinberg. While he plays a vile, insensitive, insecure, violent alcoholic, Joseph Cassese, as Lieutenant Junior Grade Daniel Kaffee, still makes you identify with him and root for his success. Robert Mueller is extremely charismatic as Captain Jack Ross, the Marine Judge Advocate, who is prosecuting the case, and Jake Alexander, making his Gallery Players debut, makes his presence known as Corporal Tom. The success of this production could only be guaranteed with a strong actor in the role of Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Jessep and I am pleased to report Frank Lewallen, who served in the United States Marines for 3 years, handled the role quite well. Not missing from this play is Col. Jessep's famous response when LTJG Daniel A. Kaffee tells him he wants the truth. Col, Jessep says, "You can't handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You? Lt. Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago, and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. That Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives. You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand a post. Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you are entitled to."
The Gallery Players has brought A Few Good Men back to life with all the excitement present in the original play and the movie. If you feel you can handle the intensity, catch it there sometime before December 18, 2017. Tickets are $25.00 ($20.00 for Children 12 & under and Senior Citizens). For reservations, call OvationTix at 212-352-3101 or visit www.GalleryPlayers.org. To quote Col. Jessep, if you miss this production of A Few Good Men, you might say, "Don't I feel like the fucking asshole" but more seriously, if you don't see it, Col. Jessep may "rip the eyes out of your head and piss into your dead skull." You will not be disappointed!