Can you handle the truth?

16 Men, Good Uniforms: Sorkin's play a challenge for small theater

April 29, 2011 

There are some challenges with a community theater putting on a military courtroom drama.

The biggest: uniforms.

“Every producer I talked to said the hardest thing about doing this production was costuming it,” said Jim Patrick, who’s directing Olympia Little Theatre’s production of Aaron Sorkin’s “A Few Good Men,” opening Thursday.

The play, about an investigation into the death of a Marine, is challenging for other reasons as well. It can be difficult for an amateur theater company to round up a large cast of men (in a cast of 17, there’s only one female character), and all of the actors need to have not just military clothing but military bearing and military haircuts.

The play is worth the trouble, though, said Toni Holm, president of the theater’s board.

“It’s a great play,” she said. “It’s so well-written. We did not know that Aaron Sorkin was going to win an Academy Award for writing when we put it on the schedule, but he is well-known for his writing.”

Sorkin won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for 2010’s “The Social Network”; he also wrote TV’s “The West Wing” and “Sports Night,” as well as the film “The American President.”

“A Few Good Men,” the play, will be very familiar to those who’ve seen the film, which is probably best remembered for Jack Nicholson’s bellow, “You can’t handle the truth!” (In fact, the line was named the 29th most memorable quote in film history by the American Film Institute.)

“I’m very true to the playwright’s words,” said Patrick, who is not only directing but also playing Capt. Markinson. “I spend a lot of time with the actors in terms of finding out what this character is about and what the playwright is really saying.

“The play has a few nuances in it that the film didn’t have,” he added.

When it comes to behaving in a proper military manner, the play has a lot of nuances. Fortunately, the cast includes former military men — among them Rob Dowd, Jack House and Tim Shute — and they’ve been helping the others prepare.

“I have those gentleman helping me with the issues of military discipline and drill,” Patrick said. “We’re trying to keep it as true as we possibly can in terms of discipline and decorum.”

Holm said, “They’ve been teaching the guys how to roll up their sleeves and how to blouse their BDUs (battle dress uniforms) and how to spit shine a pair of shoes. And how to stand and how to talk.”

Those military backgrounds also came in handy for finding the right uniforms and insignias.

“Before we started the show, I could not have told a private from a four-star general by their uniforms or insignias,” Holm said. “Now I can tell you the difference between a corporal and a lance corporal for the Marines and the Navy. It’s been a serious education for me.”

She and a crew of others have been searching out costumes. “About a quarter of the costumes had to be rented, and they tended to be the Marine dress blues, which are very hard to find,” Holm said. “There are four surplus stores in Lakewood and one in the far reaches of Nisqually that were all very helpful.”

Among the other unlikely costuming sources: J.C. Penney, which had the appropriate Navy pumps, and grunt.com, which sells all manner of Marine Corps accessories.

Then there are the actors’ crowning glories.

“We had a little discussion about that the other night at rehearsal,” Holm said. “By the time you get to be a captain, you are allowed to have your hair a little closer to the ears. But this play is set in the late ’70s, early ’80s, so the privates have to have very short hair. Some of them have beautiful curls, too, but they’re going.”

A Few Good Men

What: Olympia Little Theatre presents Aaron Sorkin’s courtroom drama, well-known thanks to the 1992 film adaptation with Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise.

When: 7:55 p.m. Thursday through May 7, plus May 12-14 and 19-21; 1:55 p.m. May 8, 15 and 22

Where: Olympia Little Theatre, 1925 Miller Ave. N.E., Olympia

Tickets: $10 for Thursday shows; $12 for weekend shows

More information: 360-786-9484 or www.olympialittletheater.org

Also: The show contains strong language and profanity.

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