Aaron Sorkin’s play A Few Good Men is a military courtroom drama that invites us to ponder the role of justice in a realm where rank means right. But not seeing much to ponder there, I left the Keegan Theatre thinking about codes: is it possible that everybody follows one, or several? Even people who disdain them? Sorkin’s script features a couple of obvious codes — legal codes and something like a code of honor — but director Jeremy Skidmore’s production invokes other codes as well, both the kind with names and the nameless kind that shape the habit of our thoughts.
A couple of those codes drive the play’s action. Corporal Dawson and Private Downey are in the brig because they accidentally killed a squad member during a so-called disciplinary exercise, a code red, which was ordered by a superior officer — or was it merely suggested? Is there a difference? And should soldiers or anybody else comply with suggestions or with orders that enjoin them to do something wrong? Dawson believes that they should.
Jon Hudson Odom plays Dawson with an unwavering air of outraged nobility. His jaw is always set, his chin is always raised, his eyes are always narrowed by indignation. In the first few scenes, he’s lit only from one side, so that half of his face and half of his thoughts are in shadow. At least half. He’s the character who seems most consistent with the motto on a bumper sticker I saw the other day: “Death Before Dishonor.” In fact, he pretty much says that.
Their lawyer is a Harvard-trained lieutenant named Daniel Kaffee who wants to complete his tour of duty with the smallest possible investment in anything but pleasure. Not a code man. He lives in the shadow of his famous father, a revered litigator, and he has a reputation for plea-bargaining cases before they get to court, which is what he intends to do with Dawson and Downey: they cop to involuntary manslaughter and conduct unbecoming of a marine, and they’re out on parole in six months. But Dawson believes he was right because he followed orders, so he won’t say he was wrong. “You’re asking me to sign a paper that says I have no honor,” he protests. He’d rather spend the rest of his life in jail.
Throughout the first half of the play, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh plays Kaffee as an over-privileged, under-engaged shirker who thinks duty is something you don’t have to pay when you buy booze at international airport terminals. He shows his disinterest by allowing his gaze to wander away from the people he’s talking to until the end of his line, when he turns it back with one or both of his eyebrows raised, as if he wouldn’t mind being surprised. Dawson’s dedication to the code of honor strikes him as pitiful at first: doesn’t Dawson realize he’s being played by the people who invented that code?
People like Colonel Nathan Jessep, for example, commander of the windward base at Guantanamo Bay, where Dawson and Downey were stationed. Jessep both embodies and articulates the paradox that in an evil world our safety may depend on evil men. He’d say ruthless men, or hard men. In an honest moment, he might say men who have the strength to stand above the codes that other people stand behind. That’s the truth which he says we can’t handle.
On the surface, Jessep epitomizes the macho military code. He says things like, “If you’ve never gotten a blowjob from a superior officer, you’re letting the best things in life pass you by.” But Mark Rhea’s performance suggests that other forces are at work beneath the surface. Rhea makes Jessep seem stiffly self-aware all the time, as if he were always working on his image and never satisfied with it. When he sits at a table, for example, he lays his arms out on it awkwardly, palms down, as if they were tools that he might use. When he stands up he leans back so he can squint down his nose at men who are taller than he is, as most are, and he walks with his arms deliberately bowed, like parentheses around his little body. Rhea’s performance undercuts Jessep’s machismo with a sense of insecurity that makes you wonder what he thinks of himself, and of the orders he gives, and of the people who follow them.
Director Jeremy Skidmore and set designer Steven Royal nationalize the moral dilemmas in this play by filling much of the space with a huge American flag. It occupies about a third of the stage. Royal has folded and rippled the flag as the wind might ripple it, and he’s attached it to a pole-like structure that’s falling. Toppled by dishonor in the upper ranks of institutions that use mottos like “Death Before Dishonor”? The falling flagpole cuts the stage in half. The tip of the pole is still far enough off the floor for people to come and go underneath it, and one side of the pole has been flattened so people can use it as a ramp to the elevated platforms, under which the symbol of America descends like a water feature in the atrium of an expensive office building. All the action takes place in the fall zone of the flag, which would seem to suggest a connection between the play’s events and America’s decline.
A note in the program informs us that, when the production closes, the Keegan Theater will deliver the national emblem to a local chapter of the Boy Scouts of America, in accordance with TITLE 4: CHAPTER 1: Section 8(k) of the US Flag Code. That note appears on the second page of the program, before the cast list, which would suggest either that the Keegan Theater cares a lot about the Flag Code, or that they’re using it to preempt criticism — for suggesting that the country has fallen? For treating the emblem of the country as a prop? One sign of the production’s success is that I can’t tell which of those things is true.
A Few Good Men
Closes September 7, 2013
1742 Church Street, NW
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
And Lieutenant Kaffee really isn’t callow. He may not understand Dawson’s passion for a code, but when he realizes that the people playing Dawson are playing him as well, he decides to stand against them, which suggests that his disinterest is a posture — if he really didn’t care, he wouldn’t care. But he does care. Not about Dawson per se, or about the principle of justice, or even about being played. In a moving scene, when he’s about to lose his case, he gets to the heart of the matter: “Would your father be proud of you?” he asks his friend Sam. “Would he say that he was proud?”
“Yes, he would,” Sam answers. “And your father would be proud of you.”
It would seem that you can take or leave the code of honor, or the code of justice, but not the primal code that makes you yearn to please your dad. Even if he isn’t famous, and his shadow isn’t long.
A Few Good Men by Aaron Sorkin. Directed by Jeremy Skidmore. Featuring Kevin Adams, William Aitken, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Jonathan Feuer, James Finley, Peter Finnegan, Patrick Flannery, Kevin Hasser, Michael Innocenti, Brianna Letourneau, Nathaniel Mendez, Jon Hudson Odom, Mark A. Rhea, Bradley Foster Smith, Adi Stein, and Jon Townson. Set design: Steven Royal. Lighting design: Kyle Grant. Costumes: Chelsey Schuller. Produced by The Keegan Theatre. Reviewed by Mark Dewey