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Review: Excellent Performances Empower A FEW GOOD MEN at La Mirada

Review: Excellent Performances Empower A FEW GOOD MEN at La Mirada

Aaron Sorkin's Broadway debut drama---the source material for the hit 1992 film---is revived locally with a talented ensemble cast

Before making a name for himself as a prolific screenwriter with such films as The American President, The Social Network, and Moneyball---and also, most notably, for creating the critically-adored, multi-Emmy Award-winning political drama The West Wing---writer/producer Aaron Sorkin first made his Broadway debut in 1989 with his riveting courtroom drama A FEW GOOD MEN, a two-act play that pits justice-seeking military lawyers against the hushed machinations of the US Military's so-called Code of Honor.

Remarkably, the film rights to this well-received play were sold long before the curtain even went up on the stage show. Its resulting film adaptation, of course, eventually became the 1992 Oscar-nominated box office hit directed by Rob Reiner that starred movie powerhouses Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore, and Kevin Bacon.

With Sorkin's recent return to Broadway still top-of-mind via his new stage adaptation of Harper Lee's classic TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (which, coincidentally, just opened in Los Angeles), it's understandable that there is now perhaps some renewed interest in his earlier works, particularly with the more recognizable A FEW GOOD MEN, a play now being performed on stage in an admirable new production presented by McCoy Rigby Entertainment at their home base at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through November 20, 2022.

Undeniably compelling but also, at times, comfortably predictable, the play---beyond its straightforward plot, its intellectual script, or its high-minded geopolitical stance---is, for all intents and purposes, really a showcase for enthralling live Acting (with capital "A") performances.

And in this engaging production's case, it certainly delivers.

Review: Excellent Performances Empower A FEW GOOD MEN at La Mirada
Michael Ocampo, Brandon Engman and Doug Harris.
Photo by Jason Niedle.

With straightforward direction from Casey Stangl, the strong, talented cast really sells the play's intriguing murder investigation story, which unfolds as intended: a trio of unproven but otherwise smart, capable lawyers are tasked to square off with the time-honored---though perhaps controversial---ways of the military industrial complex by slowly uncovering an extensive conspiracy that points upwards to even the highest ranks of its leadership.

The play---set in the Summer of 1986---is centered around the violent murder of Pfc. William Santiago (Rodrigo Varandas), a rather fragile US Marine stationed at the infamous Guantanamo Bay naval base, situated on the island of Cuba. Unable to fully integrate amongst his fellow recruits at the base, Private Santiago decides to bypass proper channels in order to obtain quick approval for a transfer request to a different base. But just as he is reportedly scheduled to finally ship out of the base, he is, tragically, found dead under suspicious circumstances.

Two of his fellow marines---Lance Cpl. Harold Dawson (Michael Ocampo) and his subordinate Pfc. Louden Downey (Brandon Engman)---are soon charged with Santiago's murder, and must now stand trial at a court-martial in Washington DC presided over by its judge, Capt. Julia Randolph (Karole Foreman).

But a US Navy Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps lawyer, Lt. Cmdr. Joanne Galloway (the excellent Leanne Antonio), is passionately convinced that Dawson and Downey are not necessarily solely responsible, because they may have been compelled to carry out a "code red" order on Private Santiago. A "code red," we soon learn, is a widely-known but hush-hush order of illegally-sanctioned brutal punishment, enacted without any properly-obtained authorization, supervision, or method.

Armed with this highly plausible theory, Galloway, therefore, feels she is more than qualified to lead Dawson and Louden's legal team, but is annoyed when she is instead passed over for fellow Navy officer Lt. j.g. Daniel Kaffee (the very charming Doug Harris), a seemingly nonchalant litigator who was handpicked, perhaps, because he has a reputation for quickly accepting plea deals rather than providing due diligence to cases by stretching out trial proceedings.

To Kaffee's dismay, his clients (well, mostly Dawson) refuse to accept a plea deal offered by prosecuting attorney Lt. Jack Ross (now a female role played assertively by Sara King), claiming that---as Lt. Cmdr. Galloway discovered earlier---they were ordered to initiate a "code red" on Santiago by the platoon commander Lt. Jonathan James Kendrick (Patrick Stafford), and that Santiago's death was, unfortunately, unplanned.

As expected, Galloway and Kaffee pretty much butt heads constantly regarding strategies while trying to work together on a defense for Dawson and Louden, with amiable Lt. j.g. Sam Weinberg (Matthew Bohrer) often caught in the middle. Ordinarily, such a rivalry would have been the origin story of an eventual romance, but in the case of A FEW GOOD MEN, the clichéd scenario of opposites attracting doesn't materialize, despite the tension between the characters.

But for his part, Kaffee concludes that it may not be a winnable case and, thus, wants to quit. Though perhaps inspired by his association with client-advocating Galloway, he soon comes to the harsh (and, well, accurate) realization that perhaps his involvement in the case was ensured by more powerful higher-ups that may have hoped, with his reputation, that Kaffee will simply plead the case out rather than continue to dig deeper to unearth the real truth---a truth that, apparently, no one can, um, handle (sorry, couldn't resist).

Along the way---as the play navigates inside the fascinating, deeply covert inner workings of the US military hierarchy via the defense team's investigations---we meet a few more high-ranking officers who may or may not have had a direct hand in Santiago's fate (um... predictably, and this is no way a spoiler, they are very much involved).

There's Capt. Matthew Markinson (the admirable Corey Jones), who initially claimed on record that he approved Santiago's request for a transfer. However---during a secret meetup with Lt. Kaffee---Capt. Markinson later recants this out of nagging guilt for not being able to protect a Marine serving under him. He instead agrees to testify that he never received any kind of order for that transfer, either from the base's head honcho, the unyieldingly intimidating Col. Nathan Jessep (the superbly gruff Andy Umberger) nor from Santiago's platoon commander Lt. Kendrick.

So then what really happened to Pfc. Santiago? Was his death an accident, an act of retaliation for supposedly snitching on a fellow Marine, or perhaps the result of a premeditated, unlawful harsh punishment on a difficult, problematic marine?

Much like the film it later inspires, the stage version of A FEW GOOD MEN---including this exceptional La Mirada production---is a truly compelling watch, as it peels its mysterious, whodunnit layers over two well-paced acts. While much of that mystery is ultimately predictable, that very predictability is, I must admit, isn't so much a let-down as it is rather satisfying---particularly knowing that the investigation's findings are conclusive, and that a well-deserved comeuppance for one super shady AF character receives at the show's jaw dropping climax is well on its way.

Even today, 32 years after the play debuted on Broadway and 30 years after the movie first premiered, that explosive courtroom outburst---you know, the one that became an even more oft-quoted moment from the movie thanks to Mr. Nicholson's enraged delivery---is still such a well-earned audience treat that we all can see coming (naturally, The Audience (i) was in applauded during the big reveal of this fiery exchange). The ferocity of Umberger's line delivery---which made me shudder because such rhetoric is so blatantly rampant in our political landscape these days---combined with Harris' combative, but justice-seeking rebuttal is pretty remarkable in this most important scene.

All told, the show's ensemble as a whole collective certainly does much of the heavy lifting to keep the play worth seeing. Elsewhere, Scenic Designer John Iacovelli's minimalist one-room set (with a descending upper back wall being the only moving piece to indicate a locale switch from Guantanamo to the DC courtroom), Karyn D. Lawrence's lighting design, and Shon LeBlanc's military-inspired costumes provide appropriately adequate visual context.

Review: Excellent Performances Empower A FEW GOOD MEN at La Mirada
James Ripple, Karole Foreman and Andy Umberger.
Photo by Jason Niedle.

Though a lot can be said about absorbing this Sorkin-penned story via its easier-to-access movie version that can simply be beamed to the comforts of our own homes, nothing beats experiencing the same story with great actors live and in the flesh, performing the material with genuinely-felt vibrancy from the stage.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ.


Photos by Jason Niedle courtesy of La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.

Performances of the McCoy Rigby Entertainment presentation of Aaron Sorkin's A FEW GOOD MEN at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts continue through Sunday, November 20, 2022. The theater is located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard in the city of La Mirada. Parking is Free. For tickets, visit or call (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.


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