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"
Handling the Truth:  Playhouse offers a solid, taut take on a classic courtroom drama"

Cincinnati City Beat

May 15, 1996

 

Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park closes its 1996 Marx Theatre season with Herman Wouk's classic World War II saga The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. Like many other courtroom dramas, The Caine Mutiny focuses not only on the central question of guilt and innocence but also asks "What is justice?"

 

As you might suspect, the answer isn't simple - and in Wouk's masterpiece this question waits patiently to be addressed in the final moments. The playwright's response suggests that true justice has a personal edge that sometimes cuts true and other times doesn't.

 

Michael Ganio's courtroom set is suitably impressive with a (literally) high court, as seven military justices are seated well above the stage floor. The rich, masculine wood panels reflect the pre-war art deco influence. Institutional metal tables and chairs suggest the military court's no-nonsense duty and the clear delineation between the brass on the bench and the accused in the dock. Ganio's courtroom transforms to the Hotel Fairmount ballroom for the final scene with little effort and maximum effect.

 

Lt. Stephen Maryk (R. Ward Duffy) is charged with mutiny for relieving Lt. Commander Queeg (Robert Elliot) of command as their mine sweeper, the U.S.S. Caine, foundered in a storm in the Pacific. Was Maryk's action justified? A trail of witnesses testifies to the facts, more or less, and to our amusement many of the prosecution witnesses have their legs cut out from under them by the defense attorney, Marine Flight Lt. Barney Greenwald (Jim Abele). Although quite an able attorney, Greenwald presents an odd approach which initially alarms the chief justice (Joneal Joplin) and Maryk. But Greenwald proves to be as crazy as a fox.

 

The play is peopled with a parade of characters who take the stand for a variety of reasons. Lt. Thomas Keefer (Anderson Matthews) is a wartime novelist with a personal agenda to protect, and Matthews is effectively slippery in this multi-dimensional role. Signalman Third Class Junius Urban (Dana Snyder) provides some welcome comic relief without going over the top. Lt. Willis Seward Keith (Chris Heitikko) portrays the steadfast ally of the accused. Dr. Forrest Lundeen (Gregory Procaccino) begins his testimony with an air of confident calm but leaves the courtroom with a doubtful glance over the shoulder. Dr. Allen Winston Bird (Mark Mocahbee) is the Freudian psychologist that Greenwald, much to the delight of the audience, turns inside-out on the witness stand.

 

Elliot turns in a solid performance as the infamous Lt. Commander Philip Francis Queeg, a man threatened by his self-image and doubts of his personal ability. Elliot's performance is well balanced and finely constructed to reveal Queeg's idiosyncratic behavior so that the audience can easily sit in judgment too.

 

Director Stephen Woolf has executed the production nicely in spite of the challenging task of keeping a courtroom drama on its feet and moving. Question-and-answer drama is a natural that has its limitations, but Woolf never lets that thought enter your head. The pacing is taut, and a sufficient amount of humor balances the psychologically heavy story of sanity and fear.

If you're a fan of the movie version of this story, you won't be disappointed with the Playhouse production. It offers much that the movie doesn't, even without the close-ups.