Julia Bright Moran & Ellie Archer. Photo: Company OutCast
A Few Good Women
By Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Jay Padilla-Hayter
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2018 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
This production of Aaron Sorkin’s classic drama is cast primarily with women. It is part of an impromptu cycle in the Louisville area of gender-swapping male dominant plays, following Glengarry Glen Ross and Reservoir Dogs. In the case of A Few Good Women, the scenario centers on a military court-martial. In the original, Sorkin allows one woman, a Navy JAG lawyer who was based on his sister, but otherwise, the characters are all men.
So the choice of A Few Good Men, the original title, allows us to see women occupying positions of command authority in institutions that, however, long women have served in them, remain firmly under the authority of men. There have been female Marines since World War II, and more recent developments in policy have attempted to make it easier for women to be assigned to infantry and other combat positions in all the Armed Services, but they are rarely involved in higher levels of command and control.
The story, based on an actual case, follows Lt. J.G. Daniel A. Kaffee (Ellie Archer) as he defends Lance Cpl. Harold W. Dawson (Aliya Barnickle) and Pfc. Louden Downey (Jeanette Helbig) on charges of murdering another Marine at the Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba. Working alongside him are Lt.Cmdr Joanne Galloway (Gwendolyn Campbell) and Lt. J.G. Sam Weinberg (Ashleigh Skaggs). The culpability in the incident hinges on whether the men were acting on orders from Lt. Kendrick (Rebecca Rae), Capt. Matthew Markinson (Patrick Alred), or Lt. Col. Nathan Jessup (Kimby Taylor-Peterson); orders to carry out a “Code Red” disciplinary action, which is against military “code” but perhaps consistent with the rigid and unyielding Marine Corps code of “honor”.
These precepts have so long been defined within a strictly patriarchal power structure that to hear them defined and debate by women perhaps forces us to question them more closely. One could argue that Sorkin is already doing that for us though, and there is a risk in undermining his intention by casting these roles with women. When Col. Jessep realizes that Cmdr. Galloway outranks Kaffee he makes crude and derogatory comments about serving under a woman that is textbook sexual harassment language, so Sorkin’s intention seems clear.
But he also balances that commentary against an undeniable respect and trust in the foundations of military service and the justice system that runs alongside it. Ultimately, his condemnation seems aimed at the extremity of that world, but not the essential truth of it. Which means that this unconventional casting is arguably targeting the patriarchal dominance of the American military in ways that go beyond Sorkin’s original ideas.
Company OutCast has a mission that embraces casting against convention, and this show certainly does that. Actors have been chosen with no concern for gender, age, or physical type. Very few of the actors working here suggest the physical conditioning that would be required of a Marine serving in a forward area, but verisimilitude is clearly not a priority in director Jay Padilla-Hayter’s production.
Traditionally, military uniforms have a very specific look: disciplined dress codes exist even for duty fatigues, and appearing in a court-martial proceeding would require more formal uniforms. Getting these costumes right is a challenge that may be impossible without a substantial budget. Marcy Zeigler dresses the marines in fatigues and the navy in dark blue suits that are a fair approximation of reality, but there is inconsistency in their placement, with Dawson and Downey dressed in something resembling formal dress blues in court while Colonel Jessep appears in what looks like a flight suit during his testimony.
Additionally, the Judge Advocate (Marcy Zeigler) presides over the proceedings in black robes, when the truth is that he or she would also appear in uniform. Such liberties may have been necessary and expedient, but they are an unfortunate distraction in a play so focused on the highly structured protocol and intractability of the military that is represented so meaningfully by the appearance of service members.
The performance does well enough by the story. Ellie Archer captures Kaffee’s cheeky facetiousness, even if she could do more with his growing sense of gravitas. Gwendolyn Campbell finds Galloway’s uptight righteousness and Ashleigh Skaggs makes the most of Weinberg’s sarcastic sense of humor. As marine prosecutor Lt. Jack Ross, Julia Bright Moran was an upright foil to Kaffee, although, again, she was dressed in the same manner as the Navy defense.
As Downey, Jeannette Helbig has little to do beyond being stoic, but she underplays smartly, while Aliya Barnickle’s grave and judgmental stare as Dawson left quite an impression.
As for the three marine officers, Patrick Alred is the odd man out as the one male cast member with a speaking role, but his natural bearing fits Markinson’s grounded but misplaced sense of justice well. Rebecca Rae* was one of the strongest performances of the evening as the self-righteous bordering-on-maniacal Lt. Kendrick. She might have been a tad more open in her contempt than the military code of conduct might allow, but she owned the utter unlikeability of the character.
Col. Jessep is a role built for efficiency and impact, with nary a word or moment wasted. Kimby Taylor-Peterson also puts little effort into making the hardcore and ambitious marine officer sympathetic. I think that is a slight misjudgment, for Jessep requires dimension for us to be fully invested in his fate, but Peterson still brings fierce energy and commitment to each super-charged moment of the character’s time onstage.
Company OutCast is producing A Few Good Women in the Horseshoe Foundation Auditorium on the campus of Ivy Tech Sellersburg. They have announced that they are presenting a full season in this venue, with A Holiday Cabaret November 29-December 8, and A Night of Edgar Allan Poe February 14-23, 2019.
*The role of Lt. Kendrick will be played by Latasha White in the 2nd weekend of the show’s run.
A Few Good Women
October 4-6, 11-13, @7:30pm
8204 County Rd 311
Sellersburg, Indiana 47172
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.