IN assembling his cast for Washington DC-based Keegan Theatre’s production of A Few Good Men, director Jeremy Skidmore was keen to distance the hit Broadway play from the subsequent hugely successful 1992 film version starring Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson and Demi Moore.
“The first thing I did was to cast an Iranian-American actor in the role of Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee which was played on the screen by Tom Cruise,” says Skidmore. “I saw the film years ago and consciously didn’t watch it again. Some of the cast hadn’t seen it and I encouraged them not to see it.”
A Few Good Men launched the writing career of Aaron Sorkin. He went on to write major TV dramas and films such as The West Wing and The Social Network. Sorkin, who adapted A Few Good Men for the screen, was inspired to write the story — based on fact — when his sister, a military lawyer, was sent to Guantanamo Bay to defend a group of marines who came close to killing a fellow marine in a ‘hazing’ incident ordered by an officer. This was before the base became famous as a prison camp.
“Essentially, the play follows the pre-trial and actual trial of two marines (Lance Corporal Harold Dawson and Private Louden Downey) who are accused of killing another marine at the Guantanamo base in Cuba. They contend they were given an order to haze this soldier by shaving his head and scaring him so that he would fall in line. But because of a coronary disability that nobody knew he had, when the men gagged him, his lungs began bleeding and he died.”
As Skidmore explains, all this happens before the play starts. “Most of the story deals with the pre-trial and the trial.”
The main navy lawyer, Lt Kaffee, is more pre-occupied with softball than the court case and expects the trial to be dealt with by a plea bargain. But a member of his defence team, Lt Commander JoAnne Galloway, encourages Kaffee to defend the charges more vigorously and Kaffee’s pursuit of justice unearths a cover-up and puts the military mindset and the Marine code of honour on trial.
Mr Skidmore says the play “beautifully shows the structure and sense of family and belonging that people can get by joining the military. There’s that sense of discipline and camaraderie”.
It also reveals the difference between someone being tried in a civilian court as opposed to being tried in a military court. “A military court is completely comprised of military personnel so they start with a specific focus as to what is right and wrong from a military perspective. That’s not necessarily the same as what the average person considers to be right and wrong. The marine code of honour states that the most important thing is service to your country. That’s more important than God.”
Skidmore says the trickiest thing about this play is that it has over 30 scenes. “It’s written like a screenplay. The biggest challenge is giving some truth to all of those senses of places and also, keeping it moving so that you’re not constantly watching transitions taking place.”
With a cast of 13, the production is expensive to tour but part of Keegan Theatre Company’s remit is to tour Ireland with classic plays.
The style of writing has that dense repartee characteristic of Aaron Sorkin. “One of the things that was always said of The West Wing was that the scripts for each episode were often twice as long as typical TV dramas. Everyone had to talk so fast. There’s definitely that dialogue density in the play. It’s about finding the balance between keeping that pace and rhythm but not going so fast as to make it difficult for audiences to understand.”
Skidmore has his work cut out for him but is more than capable of rising to the challenge.