Battle cry

Box 27

By Michael Norman Mann
Directed by Robert Crest
Wings Theatre Company
Wings Theatre
Non union production (closed)
Review by David Mackler

The box on line 27 that is the crux of the matter in Michael Norman Mann's Box 27 is the one you check (or don't) to identify (or deny) yourself as homosexual. This is the pre-"don't ask, don't tell" form, but for Capt. Stephen Mills (Brad Webb), using this form as part of his paperwork for a promotion is a deliberate, provocative act.

The setting for most of Box 27 is a storage room at an off-base restaurant run by Maggie (Kim Nielsen), where officers gather to play cards. And poker is a good metaphor for the gambling, betting, and bluffing that the men engage in, but the stakes are considerably higher than putting twenty dollars on a pair of kings.

The play raises important questions about honor and loyalty, even while it is somewhat top-heavy with exposition, but it was the cast, and the direction by Robert Crest, that gave it an energizing lift. Many of the arguments and attitudes are standard issue, but the actors were extraordinarily genuine, even when the dialogue is platitudes.

These marines like being marines and value what the service has to offer. But if the heart of the matter is whether coming out is an act of courage or foolhardiness (the elemental pro and con arguments regarding gays in the military get a strong presentation), it is the actors who rightly shifted the perspective to whether we care about what happens to them as individuals.

Chief among them was Michael Ringer as Maj. Howard Kurtis, who gave a towering performance, all the more remarkable for its naturalness. Ringer and Webb (also quite good) had an easygoing rapport that drew the audience in, so as to care about what happens to the characters. And in small moments, like observing a pivotal scene between Webb and Douglas Treem (playing his father, Col. Marshall Mills), Ringer's intensity didn't flag, giving the situation an unexpected emotional depth. And his final exit line was shattering.

Some of the play's two-dimensionality fell on the shoulders of Col. Mills, the standard-bearer for the status quo who uses a cane (metaphor alert!). But as Treem played him, it was still affecting to see this strongly principled man crumple as his son turned his world upside down. Similarly, Christopher Bell as another colonel was less affecting for what he said (explaining why he relates to prejudice in the military) than his mien when he said it.

The set (by Bill Wood) was as shabby as a bar's back area would be - getting off base is more important than luxury. Lighting effects (by John Taylor) were appropriately subtle. And even if there was a lot of dime-store philosophizing going on - change the system or play the game, types of prejudice and how they are overcome - thankfully there was no tidy (or happy) ending. As they say, military justice is to justice what military music is to music.

Also with Tom Archdeacon, Isaac Webster, and Byron West.
Box Score

Writing: 1

Directing: 2

Acting: 2

Set: 1

Costumes: 1

Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2000 David Mackler