PLAYING DEFENSE: A Few Good Men’s defense team, from left: Harold Oehler, Edward Gomez, Joanna Sycz and Cornelio Aguilera.
Runs through May 18 at Stageworks Theatre, 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat.; 3 p.m., Sun.; May 8-10 shows are sold out; 1120 E. Kennedy Blvd., West Building #151, Tampa, $26, 813-374-2416, stageworkstheatre.org
TV and film buffs have feasted on Aaron Sorkin’s meaty dialogue over the past three decades. The Oscar/Emmy-winning American screenwriter, producer and playwright has brought us many character-driven, power-struggle-wrought movies and TV series, but Sorkin started out on the stage, graduating from Syracuse University with a BFA in musical theater. He found his yen for writing as a struggling actor in New York City; while bartending in the late '80s, he wrote the military courtroom drama A Few Good Men
on cocktail napkins, which ran for 500 performances on Broadway in 1989 and was adapted for the screen in 1992. (Rob Reiner directed the Oscar-nominated film starring Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson and Demi Moore.)
Like Reiner, Karla Hartley has a knack for giving us the big picture as well as eliciting Sorkin’s more intimate, revelatory moments. The Stageworks Theatre artistic director does an impressive job of not only directing, but also providing mood-enhancing sound, lighting and stage design in the company's production of A Few Good Men
The play provides a nourishing theatrical experience after her recent cotton-candy foray with The Wiz, and Hartley’s lean direction merits a hearty salute. Stageworks’ production of A Few Good Men
diminishes vague memories of the film — thanks in large part to a well-appointed cast: Cornelio Aguilera as Lt. Daniel A. Kaffee, Dennis Duggan as Lt. Col. Nathan Jessup and Joanna Sycz as Lt. Cmdr. Joanne Galloway. Aguilera is charming, humorous and charismatic in his role as a lawyer who goes from path-of-least-resistance plea-dealer to impassioned litigator. His colleague Galloway is stubbornly forthright, shrill and ultimately amiable, recalling a high-strung Audrey Hepburn in her delivery. Duggan gives us an engaging antihero in Jessup, revealing a subtext of desperation and neurosis underneath his bluster. His “You can’t handle the truth” tirade has the same oomph as Nicholson’s.
The three officers weigh the fates of two soldiers: Pvt. Louden Downey (Nicholas Hoop) and Lance Cpl. Harold W. Dawson (Robert Richards Jr.), on trial for a hazing incident that results in the death of misfit Pvt. Santiago (RJ Pavel). All three young actors turn in believable portrayals — especially Richards, whose final speech moved some audience members to tears. The production almost reaches perfection, but becomes hampered by actors fumbling a few key lines of dialogue. Considering Sorkin’s verbose style, extra table readings could remedy such hiccups.
Minor detractions aside, Hartley exercises skillful restraint and atmospheric touches. She artfully executes smooth transitions from the present to past and back again with dimmed lighting and spotlighted soliloquies, and with jarring impact, drapes the backdrop with a giant American flag, conjuring, for better or worse, the U.S. military’s near-religious style of patriotism. Likewise, costume designer Scott Daniel provides a smart dress-tie-and-black-shirt twist on the military uniform, effectively adding to the visual impact of Hartley’s minimalistic set.
Former Florida CFO and Congressional candidate Alex Sink is a sponsor of A Few Good Men
, and on opening night snapped phone pics of the lobby sign announcing her dedication of the production to her late husband, Bill McBride. A handful of corporate sponsors also chipped in, further reflecting the play's continued relevance and emotional resonance, and providing a lesson in how effective a theater can be when it has its finger on the pulse of its community.