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Chain of Command 

'A Few Good Men' questions authority

January 17-23, 2007

The United States Marine Corps is no place for independent thinkers. Our military system is based in part on the principle that nothing would function if soldiers were allowed to choose which orders to obey and which to ignore. But what if the order given is a crime? Who would be guilty, the soldier who carries out the crime or the superior officer who orders it? And can every action that would be considered criminal on the streets of Smalltown, U.S.A.--where threatening, wounding and killing people is generally frowned upon--still qualify as a crime when it is carried out in the Marines or the Army or the Navy, where threatening, wounding and killing people are the tools of the trade?

This is rich material for drama and has been for thousands of years, from Homer to Shakespeare to Oliver Stone. In his play A Few Good Men, best known for the movie version starring Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson, writer Aaron Sorkin (creator of Sports Night, The West Wing and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and the writer of the movie The American President) explores these questions in the context of a U.S. Marine court martial taking place in the 1980s. In typical Sorkin style, the play is a crisp, literate and entertaining examination of complex issues that ultimately don't answer the questions raised (as if any play really could without resorting to simplistic resolutions and cozy solutions).

In a stylish new production by the Ross Valley Players, veteran director Jim Dunn calls on his own experience as a former Marine to drench the stage in realistic military detail from the haircuts and uniforms to the ramrod posture and snappy salutes of the military characters. Dunn reportedly put the cast through a Marine-style preproduction boot camp and some of the actors are better at portraying active military than others, but the overall vibe on stage is one of confident, lived-in credibility. The show, which has never before been staged in the North Bay, began a six-week run last weekend.

As we learn in effective opening monologues performed before an imposing wall of chain-link fence, Lance Cpl. Harold Dawson (Wendell H. Wilson) and Pfc. Louden Downey (Pierre Litt├łe) have been charged with murder while serving at the U.S Naval base at the pre-9-11 Guantanamo Bay. During the brutal hazing of a private, the victim was either accidentally or purposefully killed. A glib, hotshot Navy lawyer, Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Michael Abts), is assigned to defend the marines, who have confessed to the crime but remain mysteriously uncooperative.

Assisting Kaffee is the cynical Navy attorney Sam (Stephen Dietz) and, despite Kaffee's efforts to ignore her, the odd but idealistic Lt. Cmdr. Joanne Galloway (Jennifer Reimer). During their initial conversations with the recalcitrant Dawson and Downey, Kaffee and team uncover details of Guantanamo's extremely strict code of behavior and the practice of performing "Code Red" torture sessions on sub-par marines, ultimately stumbling into a possible conspiracy implicating the naval station's commander, the frighteningly control-conscious Lt. Col. Jessep (Eric Burke).

Dunn has assembled a fine cast, with high marks given to Wilson as the glowering Dawson, who demonstrates more presence and power while sitting perfectly still than most actors can manage to do delivering towering Shakespearean speeches. Burke is affably menacing as Jessep, all self-righteous assurance and bullying glee. Abts, Dietz and Reimer--all playing military folks who are light years away from the strict combat-ready intensity of the Guantanamo staff--are engagingly loose and playful, and the camaraderie and respect they eventually gain for one another is well defined. Lastly, in the small part of a nervous marine called as a witness, Francis Serpa is both wonderfully silly and believably human, a symbol of decency locked in a system that sometimes requires inhuman behavior in order to get results.

'A Few Good Men' runs Thursday-Sunday through Feb. 18. Friday-Saturday at 8pm; Thursday at 7:30pm; Sunday (except Feb. 4) at 2pm. Barn Theatre, Marin Art and Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross, Friday-Sunday, $17-$20; Thursday, $16; Friday, Jan. 19, pay what you will tickets available between 7pm and 7:20pm. Free admission to all active military with ID. 415.456.9555.

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