John Chodes's new military courtroom drama is of a type we all know already, in some form or another. It has all those customary military buzzwords and catch-phrases - "honor," "duty," "chain of command," and so forth. The play offers revealing testimonies, hostile cross-examinations, strenuous objections, and other gripping legal scenarios. All of its conflicts have been seen before: justice vs. expediency, following orders vs. obeying one's conscience, the virtues of America's military vs. its excesses and atrocities. Think of The Caine Mutiny, A Soldier's Play, A Few Good Men, or even the TV Series JAG, and you've got the basic idea.
Based on historical events from US military actions in the Philippines in 1902, A Howling Wilderness centers on the court martial of Major Littleton Waller (Dennis Turney). Waller, a famous and decorated officer, ordered the execution of eleven "natives" - Filipino civilians hired by the Army, who may or may not have been conspiring to kill American soldiers. Were the executions justifiable? Or did they constitute murder? Did Waller conduct a lawful investigation or act as a renegade soldier concerned only with furthering his career? Did the envious and eccentric General Smith (D. Michael Berkowitz) give Waller carte blanche to kill local civilians at will and purposely send the Major on a patrol mission doomed to failure? Was America's entire Pacific leadership culpable in the crime, thanks to its violent and racist colonial policies? These are the questions that arise as defense attorney Colonel Edward Marix (Frank Enos) delves into the dangerous task of defending his client. As it retells this story both inside and outside of the courtroom, the play is often suspenseful and tense but never particularly resonant or surprising. Chodes seems too comfortable with the well-worn clichés and tricks of the genre; A Howling Wilderness never breaks or even reshapes its mold in any memorable or creative way.
Still, Don Price's direction was crisp as the crease in a well-pressed uniform. Trial scenes clipped along with clarity and economic precision. The trio of Turney, Enos and Christopher Benson Reed (as the prosecuting Judge Advocate) showed plenty of good old square-jawed, American military sobriety-though occasionally their angry courtroom outbursts were awkward, and too obviously scripted. The action shifted gracefully (thanks also to Stephen Petrilli's agile lighting and Sarah Rubio's sound design) among several small platforms on the periphery of the stage, as family members, newspaper editors, politicians, generals, and others made short cameo entrances. Costume Designer Kate Carroll gave terrific attention to this wide array of minor characters; though the trial scenes drive the plot, these actors - and their clothes - painted a rich historical portrait. Set designer Barry Axtell created a haunting "semi-destroyed" courtroom against a background of camouflage netting and sand that shadowed the play's Pacific military setting.
But the production's virtues could not obscure the fact that this playwright is overly comfortable following his orders, and thus too content to march in step with a tired and familiar dramatic cadence.
Also featuring: George Cavey, Edward Juvier, Duane Mazey, Leonardo Nam, Jerry Shullman, Carrie, Wilshusen
Lighting 2/Sound: 1
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Copyright 2001 Jonathan Shandell