The Power of the Code

Last night, we saw the play “Matter of Honor” at the Pasadena Playhouse. “Matter of Honor” is an interesting one-act 90-minute play that tells the story of Johnson Whittaker, one of the first African-American cadets at the Military Academy at West Point (he wasn’t the first, however; that honor goes to Henry O. Flipper). During his first class (senior) year at West Point, Cadet Whittaker was found one morning in his room, beaten and bound, with cuts to his ears and a brused and bloodied head. The play tells the story of the investigation into this beating, under the direction of the superintendent of West Point, General John McAllister Schofield. General Schofield brings in an outside investigator, Mr. Chase, to apply scientific methods to the case (such as they were in the 1880s). Chase interviews other cadets, notably Stanton, a gentlemanly son of the south, as well as Whittaker, to come to his conclusion, all the while running into the honor code of West Point, combined with the silent overt segregation of the sole black cadet. He initially concludes that Whittaker beat himself, but later changes that position as Whittaker protests his innocence throughout the court martial. The play is framed throughout with Chase being subjected to questioning by an army officer (Stern) about whether Gen. Schofield interfered in the case.

This was a very intense drama, but one that doesn’t have a real good conclusion (it didn’t in real life either). You never find out who really beat Whittaker (although initially court-martialled for beating himself, that was later overturned… but he still was separated for not passing philosphy… it wasn’t until President Clinton that the separation was overturned and he was posthumously awarded his lt. bars). There were some strong parallels to today, with the military being notoriously tight lipped about what goes on inside its walls, not letting outsiders see the truth.

The performances were very strong, as we’ve come to expect at the Playhouse (although, alas, the audience was only about half full). Whittaker was played by Cedric Sanders, a relative newcomer but a very strong actor. The investigator, Chase, was played by Eric Lutes, who did an excellent job shifting personas between the alcoholic Chase of 1882 (post-investigation) and the eager Chase of the 1880 investigation. Enforcing honor, for right or wrong, was Richard Doyle‘s Gen. Schofield, who had the right amount of bluster and bravado to pull it off. Rounding out the cast were Steve Coombs as Stanton, Adam J. Smith as Stern, Brian Watkins as Foster, and Steve Holm, John O’Brien, and Ryan J. Hill as various cadets. The play was written by Michael Chepiga and directed by Scott Schwartz (who also directed tick, tick… BOOM).

On the technical side: the Scenic Design was by Robert Brill, who built a stone West Point facade that was nothing short of remarkable, combined with an incredibly raked stage. Costumes design was by Maggie Morgan (with military precision), and lighting was by Donald Holder (who created some remarkable mood with lighting shifts). Sound design was by Mark Bennett, with video design by Austin Switzer. The videos were used to provide captions and date framing, as well as providing updates on the story to the present day. Dialect coaching was by Joel Goldes, and fight coordination was by Tim Weske (who I also think did Can-Can).

“Matter of Honor” continues through September 30, 2007.

Dining Notes: Nothing really, as we had to stop by the mall to hit Teavana (eh, in my opinion… I prefer Franklin Tea), and thus quickly hit Barney’s Gourmet Hamburgers, which were actually quite good.

What’s next on the theatre calendar? Next is “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” at REP East on 10/6 @ 8:00pm; “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center on 10/13 @ 8:00pm; and “7 Brides for 7 Brothers” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on 11/3 @ 2:00pm.