Theater Reviews

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Pasadena Playhouse
Through Sept. 30


Based on a historical incident that took more than a century to resolve, the world premiere of Michael J. Chepiga's "Matter of Honor" -- about the moral and physical humiliation of Johnson Whittaker, one of the first black cadets to be admitted to West Point, and the trial that followed -- appeals more to the head than the heart.

For most of the play's intermissionless 90 minutes, the breathless pace of events, punctuated by occasional outbursts of violence, holds the audience in its grip. But the crisp pacing that helps to create the dramatic tension never allows the emotional turmoil experienced by the main antagonists -- Whittaker (Cedric Sanders); Schofield, the academy's commander (Richard Doyle); and Chase (Eric Lutes), a fictional composite of the reporters covering the sensational trial -- to fully communicate itself.

This has less effect on Doyle, who delivers a wonderfully heroic performance expressed through myriad inflections of his rich voice and a series of beautifully written arias and recitatives. Neither Sanders nor Lutes are any less heroic than Doyle in how they approach their roles, but neither becomes convincingly sympathetic. The result is that the play succeeds more as a necessarily confused but obviously noble documentary than a convincing attempt to stir emotions. To this day, the facts in this West Point saga remain shrouded in mystery.

In the case of Sanders, he projects Whittaker's conflicted stoicism to an impressive degree, using his facial expressions and hauntingly expressive eyes to project through a veil of West Point-mandated discretion a deeply wounded psyche. Stoicism, unfortunately, is such an anti-dramatic quality that it needs to be leavened with more humanity than Sanders dispenses. In the case of Lutes, he never comes to grips with a role that is made deeply problematic by pathological indecision.

The most explosive performance comes from Steve Coombs as a cadet under suspicion, raising the emotional temperature with a smoldering performance that explores the philosophical and ethical ambiguities of the academy's unofficial policy of silence towards outsiders (especially black outsiders). Brian Watkins as a second cadet provides an eloquent summary of purely human but disallowed concerns.

The scenery, in a variety of stunning configurations, contributes almost as much as the actors, brilliantly projecting events deeply into the Playhouse. The play is accompanied much of the time by a musical score reminiscent of Stravinsky's music for Ramuz's fable "The Soldier's Tale," supplemented by the occasional onstage presence of an Army drummer. Unfortunately, the music becomes increasingly intrusive as the plays wears on, and at one point the drummer even drowns out important dialogue.

The flashes of color on the cadets' uniforms, including a sea of gold buttons, strike an odd contrast with the physically black-and-white production. Several other costume-related misjudgments include the distracting shades of brown in which Lutes is clothed, and a badly fitted uniform that detracts from the credibility of Adam J. Smith as an adjutant whose dramatic purpose is to communicate details to the audience that they might not know otherwise.

The play is well worth seeing, especially as a deeply concerned, relentlessly serious attempt to deal with issues that still confound us today. To paraphrase one of Tom Stoppard's characters in "Professional Foul," ethics are confusing. That's why they have these plays!

MATTER OF HONOR
Presented by Pasadena Playhouse by special arrangement with Richard Willis and Martin Markinson
Credits:
Playwright: Michael J. Chepiga
Director: Scott Schwartz
Set designer: Robert Brill
Costume designer: Maggie Morgan
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Sound designer/original music: Mark Bennett
Casting: Michael Donovan
Video designer: Austin Switser
Cast:
Whittaker: Cedric Sanders
Chase: Eric Lutes
Schofield: Richard Doyle
Stern/Lawyer 1: Adam J. Smith
Stanton: Steve Coombs
Foster/Drummer/Lawyer 2: Brian Watkins
Cadets: Steve Holm, John O'Brien, Ryan J. Hill
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