Oct. 21 2009 12:00 AM

Cast of Riverwalk’s ‘Few Good Men’ mirrors real life

With a Lansing lawyer playing a Navy lawyer and a seasoned National Guardsman as a gung-ho Marine, Riverwalk’s “A Few Good Men” promises an extra measure of verisimilitude.

In Aaron Sorkin’s hit Broadway drama, directed for Riverwalk by Lee Helder, two Marines are accused of murdering a fellow Marine as part of a hazing ritual ordered by a superior officer. The lawyers defending the Marines wrestle with ethical and legal issues that eventually implicate the military mentality and Marine code of honor.

David Dunckel plays Colonel Nathan Jessep, accused of complicity in the death of a fellow Marine at Guantanamo Bay in the 1980s. Dunckel is well equipped for the role: He has been on active duty in the National Guard for 20 years.

Dunckel called Jessep a “flawed hero,” more fully developed in the play than in the 1992 movie. “The character is consumed with his duty to protect what he sees as a free world, or our way of life,” he said. “I’ve served in combat and I understand that responsibility. I understand how the civilian world A might Few have Good a hard Men time 10/21 understanding & 28 the responsibility that we assume over there.”

In another convergence of actor and role, Joe Baumann, a local attorney with the Dykema Gossett firm, plays Jessep’s attorney, Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee. Baumann said his profession helped him with the role the same way Dunckel’s did. But he cautioned that playing a lawyer and being one are not the same thing.

A stage lawyer, he said, doesn’t always behave the same way a real lawyer would. “At the same time, I know the things that go into being a lawyer and the way that you act and carry yourself,” he said.

Despite Baumann’s legal training, he didn’t find cause to nit-pick the proceedings on stage. He said the play treats legal procedure in a provocative and thoughtful way and expects it to provoke plenty of discussion. After the first performance Oct. 22, actors Dunckel and Matt Szymanski (an Army veteran) will participate in a discussion with the audience, led by Cooley Law School professor Charlie Palmer.

“The issue is that we all live under a ‘right and wrong’ way of living,” Baumann said. But the distinction gets fuzzy as this courtroom drama unfolds. “There is a gray area,” Baumann said.

Helder, who has directed at Riverwalk before, said she got the idea to bring the play to Lansing 20 years ago, when she was “blown away” by a Broadway performance.

She said many of the issues aired in “A Few Good Men” are relevant today, and cited a recent newspaper article about a Marine that was killed by a friend during a hazing “game.”

Helder has her own ideas about how to handle the play. She has never seen the movie and said she will avoid it until after the play’s run is over, if she sees it at all.

“A Few Good Men” is the first entry this season in Cooley Law School’s “Stages of the Law” series, split among three downtown Lansing theaters. The other two entries this season will be Lansing Community College’s “Much Ado About Nothing” Dec. 4-6 and BoarsHead Theater’s “Wait Until Dark,” March 19-April 11, 2010.

‘A Few Good Men’

Theatre 228 Museum Dr. Lansing, MI October 22-25 and October
29-November 1, 2009 Thursday 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday 8 p.m., Sunday
2 p.m. www.riverwalktheatre.com