MILITARY DRAMA ON STAGE AT ST JOSEPH PLAYERS IN YUCCA VALLEY

Jack Lyons Theatre & Film Critic

Yucca Valley, California, is only a stone’s throw away from one of largest Marine bases in the country. It’s only natural then that one out of the four live theatre venues in the area present military themed plays during any year, and why not? They have a captive audience ready and waiting to be entertained.

This year it’s The St. Joseph Players of Yucca Valley’s time to produce another military-themed play and they have chosen well. Theatre founder and artistic director Rebecca Havely has a winning track-record when it comes to producing military-style plays. Her 2015 “Biloxi Blues” comedy production was a crowd pleasing audience favorite.

Now Havely has selected the powerful military courtroom drama “A Few Good Men”, written by Academy and Emmy Award-winning screenwriter and playwright Aaron Sorkin as her directing choice for 2017.

The story in short, centers round the courts-martial and trial of two Marines who have been charged with the death of fellow Marine as a result of a hazing and discipline incident at Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo), Cuba in 1986.

The dilemma facing Lt. JG, Naval lawyer Daniel Kaffee (Ben Bees), who has never tried a capital case before, is to face up to his penchant for plea bargaining his cases instead of rigorously defending his clients. At the prodding of Lt. Commander Joanne Galloway (Liyan Lagevardi) a female member of the defense team, along with his defense team lawyer buddy Lt.JG Sam Weinberg (Jericho McWilliams), Kaffee struggles to agree in doing the right thing by presenting a vigorous defense to save his two clients Lance Cpl. Harold W. Dawson and Pfc Louden Downey (Malcom Stanley-Wolfe and Jessie Scheckler respectively) thus mitigating the possible life sentences in a Federal prison if the defense pleads Guilty. After much soul-searching, Kaffe decides to go all the way in entering a Not Guilty plea, knowing by so doing, he runs the risk of putting the ‘Military mindset’ and the Marine code of honor on trial.

Now the control game begins in earnest between Kaffee, a junior officer and his no nonsense, highly decorated, career Marine and Base Commander, Colonel Nathan Jessup (played by Abe Daniels in a stunning performance) a man who is used to being obeyed. The Marines under his command, live, breathe, and die to Jessup’s code of “Unit, Corps, God, Country!”

All actors love good writing. It makes their job that much more enjoyable. Good courtroom dramas can be riveting when the writing is sharp and insightful, and it doesn’t get any better than staging any Aaron Sorkin written play. A note here might prove helpful: Sorkin wrote the movie first, however, with its success, he was urged to turn his story into a stage play as well. It follows the movie plot when it’s important to do so but the movie is episodic in its unfolding. The stage is a different medium and accommodations have to be made. So don’t look for Jack Nicholson or Tom Cruise, just keep your eyes on stage actors Abe Daniels and Ben Bees. You won’t be disappointed. They’re terrific as well.

If I had to nit-pick, I would say when Act Two begins Lt. Kaffee needs to soften the earlier comic persona in Act One of a wisecracking glib lawyer, and get down to the serious business of representing two young Marines accused of murder. Military Tribunals are serious proceedings and are governed by strict military rules and courtroom behavior.

Director Havely’s traffic management skills are put to the test on the small St. Joseph Players stage where a large cast of seventeen performers are needed to tell the powerful story of “A Few Good Men”. It’s a credit to the entire company that the scene changes are smoothly accomplished with precision (it must be that infectious Marine Corps discipline that kicks in even in the case of civilian actors), thanks to the creative talent and the personal vision of director Havely.

There are many fine supporting actor performances in this production. But with a cast of seventeen it’s impossible to list everyone. However, there are always a few standouts and this production is no exception. Cyrus Short as Lt. Kendrick, Liyan Lagevardi as Lt Commander Joanne Galloway, Janet Peercy as Lt. Ross, Bob Noble as Lt. Col Markinson, and Mike Shaw as the courts-martial Judge Capt. Randolph, are among many nicely etched performances. Actually, that the production works so well is due in part to the true ensemble feeling generated by the entire company of performers and behind-the-scenes technicians.

“A Few Good Men” is an entertaining evening in the theatre. It runs through March 26, 2017. For tickets and reservation, call 760-362-9319.

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