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Codes of conduct
A Few Good Men at the Fort Wayne Civic Theater
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
A lot of great actors auditioned for roles in the Fort Wayne Civic Theater’s production of A Few Good Men, and director Renae Butler swears that none of them did a Jack Nicholson impression.
“I was actually really impressed by that,” she laughs. “They were all unique and original.”
All smart-aleck questions aside, tackling a stage production of A Few Good Men presents a number of challenges. Written by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing; The Social Network; The Newsroom), the courtroom drama is a feast for any actor, featuring Sorkin’s snappy trademark dialogue where smart people talk about important stuff. Like we said, actors love the chance to dig into this kind of script, and there’s also nothing like a really good courtroom drama for flexing some acting muscle.
In A Few Good Men, callow JAG attorney Lt Daniel Kaffee (Bob Ahlersmeyer) is assigned to defend a group of Marines accused of murdering one of their own during a hazing incident at Guantanamo Bay. Kaffee has a reputation as a master of the plea deal, but the seriousness of the charges and the sense that there is more to the story awakens a deeper sense of justice. This puts him up against Lt Colonel Nathan Jessep (Ken Low), top officer at the base, a man with a very clear-cut sense of his own principles and honor.
A Few Good Men is in the tradition of great courtroom dramas of the stage, though the genre has its limitations. “One of the difficulties of this script is that Act II is almost entirely a court scene,” Butler says. “In an effort to bring the audience closer in to the action (as a camera is able to do), we move the table and witness stand around so that the audience goes from being an audience member to being the judge and jury.”
That said, A Few Good Men comes with it’s own pretty heavy baggage. Maybe people in the audience know that A Few Good Men was a play before it was adapted into a highly successful and award-nominated film 20 years ago (yes, you’re that old), but the film has arguably the most referenced — and parodied — movie line of the last two decades. Not even “life is like a box of chocolates” comes close.
And just to make things a little more messy, Butler tells me that after the film became a hit, Sorkin went back and reworked the stage version so that it more closely resembled the screenplay. So, whatever dramatic nugget some poor actor could unearth in the original script that might allow them to forget the image of a snarling Jack Nicholson in the witness stand, chewing through scenery like a rabid wolverine… is gone.
So, how does Ken Low, who plays the Colonel Jessep role, handle that kind of pressure?
Very well, actually. Low is a veteran of Fort Wayne stages (recently he was in The Farnsworth Invention, another Sorkin play), and to hear him tell it, his approach was to re-build the character from the ground up. “I have several military people who have been in my family, and quite a few of them are pieced together to create this picture of what a Marine Colonel like this would be like,” Low says. “I’ve actually had a couple Colonels in my family. So my Jessep comes from that personal experience, and also just understanding that this guy is the one who’s in charge of the whole Marine base, which adds a certain edge to it.”
And when the big scene comes, Low says he just blocks everything else out and plays it as the character he’s established. “When I get to that line that everybody knows so well, I just make sure I do it as honestly as I possibly can, just making sure that it comes out of the character’s emotions in that moment,” he explains.
The Fort Wayne Civic Theatre presents A Few Good Men
Arts United Center
303 East Main Street
Saturdays, September 8 and 15 at 8 PM
Sundays, September 9 and 16 at 2 PM
Friday, September 14 at 8 PM
Box Office: (260) 424.5220 or online: fwcivic.org