A Theatrical Experience: Casa Mañana Presents ‘A Few Good Men’

Casa MananaAs part of their ‘Broadway at the Silver Dome Summer 2007’ series, The Casa Mañana Theatre in Fort Worth Texas presented a five-day (June 5-10) run of the Aaron Sorkin’s military/legal drama, A Few Good Men. The headliners for this production were two Texas natives, actor Lou Diamond Phillips, successful star of stage and screen in the role of Marine Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Jessup and actor Jensen Ackles a talented and versatile rising star of screen and television as Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade Daniel A. Kaffee.
Many people who have heard of or seen A Few Good Men have done so through the big screen adaptation starring Jack Nickleson as the hardnosed, no nonsense Jessup who is charge of the US Military installation at Guantanamo Bay Cuba and Tom Cruise as the cocky, wisecracking attorney Kaffee who is assigned by JAG to represent two young marines under arrest for the possible murder of another fellow marine at the base under Jessup’s command.
As a stage production, A Few Good Men was limited to whatever visuals could be conveyed by props and clever use of staging so the audience had to rely more heavily on the director of the production and the actors playing the roles on stage to bring the story being told to life. As a member of that audience present for several performances, I can honestly say that I found it a privilege to have seen this production on the stage at Casa Mañana Theatre. The audience chamber in Casa Mañana Theatre is an intimately sized, horseshoe shaped design that brings the production and audience together. Having gotten seats in various locations ranging from second row, from midway back off to the side and to back row center stage view this reviewer can attest to the fact that there are no bad seats in the house. Thanks to the sound designer Ryan Mansfield and lighting designer Jay Isham the actors on stage were clearly audible and visible to the audience.
The Casa Mañana Theatre made this production of A Few Good Men a truly exceptional experience for the audience by utilizing powerhouse production talent to bring the play to life on the stage. Director Elliot Wasserman who, in a ten-day rehearsal window transformed his talented cast in to the strong legal, military and very human characters of this compelling story. Wasserman also set a strong pace for the production and kept the action moving along through well executed set and costume changes that were so seamlessly done, you often forgot that you were watching something limited by being a live performance in which the actors must run off stage to do costume changes. There was never a shirt untucked, a buckle unbuckled or button undone when it wasn’t suppose to be. This also speaks very highly of the backstage wardrobe department working under the competent supervision of Tammy Spencer. Another factor that keep the audience believing in the story was the attention to detail that went into the designing of the costumes, Casa Mañana Costume Designer Marty Van Kleek’s amazingly detailed military costumes for this play really seemed to set the actors into their roles and help them present true presence and bearing.
Being limited to a theatre stage, director Elliot Wasserman also had to chose the parts of the overall story which could be best conveyed in the setting and visuals. While I missed seeing the ‘crystal clear’ scene in the movie between Jessup and Kaffee translated into the play, the story flowed well and lost none of the impact of the material it is based on. Wasserman also employed the use of having his actors doing many scenes right at the edge of the stage which created a very strong sense of intimate storytelling that made the audience feel like they were part of the story being told, not just an observer.
It was clearly evident to this reviewer that Casa Mañana Theatre is dedicated to bringing their audiences the very best experience in live theatre entertainment by bringing in the finest acting talent possible for their productions, not just in their well-known leads but from local actor’s as well. Nothing made this dedication to the audience more clear than the choices made for the two head lining lead actors for this production of A Few Good Men.
Going into this production, both lead actors were well aware that two very big names in the movie industry had played their respective roles in the big screen adaptation of A Few Good Men and that this could prove to be a challenge to them in presentation to the audience. In this reviewer’s opinion, Lou Diamond Phillips and Jensen Ackles more than rose to that challenge, they met it and surpassed it with a mastery of their craft as actors that was one of the biggest reasons for making this production such a privilege to have seen on stage at Casa Mañana. They rose to the challenge of having to do these roles without the luxury of retakes and under the demands of the audience being right there to witness the albeit rare occurrence of misspoken lines and minor mistakes as well as the more consistently done and overall perfect moments. They put themselves out there on the stage where once the action began, there was no time or way to go back and redo or undo. A Few Good Men is a challenging piece of work filled with both military and professional legal jargon. It is a testament to all the actors in this play that some much of it came out time after time in flawless execution and even when there were minor missteps with dialog, it was handled with such smooth professionalism that, in this reviewer’s opinion, it added a very human quality to the characters instead of detracting from them.
Lou Diamond Phillips has been a powerful and compelling actor of screen and stage for a number of years, consistently turning in performances that hold an audience’s attention. As Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Jessup in Casa Mañana ‘s production of A Few Good Men, Lou Diamond Phillips was a joy watch. From the first moment he appeared on stage, cigar in hand, Phillips owned the character and you didn’t think about Jack Nickleson. In person, Lou Diamond Phillips is a lithe built man with an easy smile and a warmth that makes you feel at ease with him, yet on stage as Jessup, he exuded a sense of power and an edge so dangerous it radiated out into the audience and brought a strong sense of realism to the character.
The character of Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Jessup is one that in lesser hands could easily become a one-dimensional caricature of a megalomaniac. In the skilled hands of the talent of Lou Diamond Phillips, the character had subtext and layers. You understood his passions, his belief that what he was doing was the right thing and felt the courage of his convictions. You may not have liked Jessup very much, but you understood him and that all came down to having an amazing talent like Lou Diamond Phillips on stage in the role.
Lou Diamond Phillips can be seen next on stage this fall in the role of King Arthur in the national tour of Lerner & Loewe’s production of Camelot. Also catch on in the season opening episode of USA hit series Psych
Jensen Ackles, a rising, talented screen and television actor and currently one of the two leads in the hit CW Network series Supernatural was in the daunting position of taking on the role of Lieutenant Junior Grade Daniel A. Kaffee, a character that is strongly associated with Tom Cruise’s portrayal of him in the movie adaptation of A Few Good Men. If the audience reactions after viewing Jensen Ackles in Casa Mañana’s production of A Few Good Men that this reviewer heard are any indication, then it is safe to say that many people left this play very highly impressed with Jensen Ackles in the role.
Having the audiences be so highly impressed with his work in A Few Good Men was something that in this reviewer’s opinion, Jensen Ackles rightly earned at every performance he gave. His mastery of comedic timing, body language and awareness of stage presence without being over the top at any point was nearly flawless. Jensen Ackles version of Daniel Kaffee was uniquely his own, a character with three-dimensional depth and texture. Ackles ability to give the audience that uniqueness at every turn on stage is a testament to the talent and dedication of this actor to his craft.
It could have been so easy for Jensen Ackles to ride on Tom Cruise’s coattails and mimicked Cruise’s work from the movie, but instead Jensen Ackles grabbed the role of Lieutenant Junior Grade Daniel A. Kaffee by his brass bars and gave the audiences at the Casa Mañana production of A Few Good Men some of the finest work on stage any audience could be privileged to see. In Ackles hands Kaffee had true resonance to him that radiated off the stage and into the audience creating a connection to the character that lasted long after the production was over and the actors had gone.
Jensen Ackles returns to Vancouver B.C. along with the other series lead Jared Padalecki, in July to begin filming the 3rd season of the hit CW Network series Supernatural in which Ackles plays the cocky and sarcastic ‘bad boy’ Dean Winchester, one of two brothers hunting nasty things of supernatural nature that are terrorizing innocent people.
The talent level in Casa Mañana’s production of A Few Good Men didn’t stop with the head lining stars, but continued in the casting from local talent for all the other roles in the production. Lydia MacKay as Lieutenant Commander Joanne ‘Jo’ Galloway was a pleasure to watch. This reviewer found her portrayal of the character to be far more compelling than her movie counterpart Demi Moore’s was. MacKay gave to the role the feel of someone who was equally as strong in her convictions as Jessup ever was, but with far more understanding of the principles of right and wrong. Thankfully this production of A Few Good Men didn’t try to shoehorn in some romantic interest between Kaffee and Galloway, but instead focused on the realism of men and woman working together as a team and the struggles that can happen for a woman doing so in a ‘man’s world’. Lydia MacKay was excellent in all of these aspects of her character.
Ben Rauch as Lieutenant Junior Grade Sam Weinberg was, in this reviewer’s opinion one of other joys of watching the Casa Mañana Theatre production of A Few Good Men. His work in the role, which so easily could have fallen into one-dimensional comic relief, was layered and held depth that the audience found a connection to. Rauch brought a sense of realism to Weinberg’s perspective of understanding exactly what the frustrations were about often being regarded as the ‘weak link’ in a world where physical perfection and strength were highly valued. Ben Rauch brought real humanity to a character struggling to rise above being caught in the shadow of the ‘All American boy’ Kaffee and real humanity to the bonds of friendship that Weinberg and Kaffee had formed despite that struggle. For more about Ben Rauch go to his website at http://www.benrauchsite.com
While all the actors were outstanding in the Casa Mañana’s production of A Few Good Men and all of them deserve kudos for the fine work they did throughout the five day run of the play, it isn’t possible to include them all individually. Notable mentions do have to go to Jerome Bethea and Justin Arnold as Lance Corporal Harold W. Dawson and Private First Class Louden Downey, the two marines accused of killing fellow Marine Private First Class William Santiago who was played by David Ristuccia. Bethea and Arnold were excellent and most notable was their attention to military bearing. They brought strength and honor to the role and the uniforms they were wearing. Jeff Schmidt as Lieutenant Jonathan James Kendrick was simply outstanding as well. Schmidt has the kind of power and stage presence that makes this reviewer firmly believe that give this actor another few years and he will be more than able to take on the challenge of playing the lead role of Jessup in a future stage production of A Few Good Men.
My review of the experience of attending the Casa Mañana Theatre production of A Few Good Men would not be complete without a mention of the theatre staff and my experiences with them. It is this reviewer’s opinion that how much or how little someone enjoys an event like a stage production doesn’t just rest on the shoulders of the actors on stage, but how well the staff of any given theatre treats its patrons who attend the productions. The entire staff at Casa Mañana was an absolute pleasure to deal with. The people manning the sales and pick up of tickets were always willing to help you find the best seat available and to give prompt and courteous service at every turn.
Once inside the Casa Mañana Theatre, everyone from House and Concessions Manager Karen Lockwood to every one of the ushers and concession workers, no matter how daunting the task was, were kind, courteous and considerate. They had two very popular actors in the cast of their production whom had attracted a large audience of devoted fans and the whole situation was handled in way that treated everyone stars and audiences alike with dignity and respect. Something like this, while it might seem trivial, is in reality a very important part of making an audience, many of who were first time attendees at an event held at Casa Mañana, feel welcome and comfortable. It is the kind of high-level professionalism from staff that makes an audience member more inclined to come back for other productions as well.
This reviewer would certainly recommend The Casa Mañana Theatre experience to anyone traveling to Dallas/Fort Worth Texas on vacation and looking for something of interest to do while they are there. The productions are high quality with top-notch casts and the staff of the Casa Mañana was excellent. For more information about Casa Mañana go to http://www.casamanana.org or call them at 1-817-332-2272 for more information.
Article Copyright 2007 to M R REED. Photos Copyright2007 to Casa Manana Theatre.


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