Semper Fi | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader
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SEMPER FI

New Lincoln Theatre

Every once in a while, a script comes along that's so articulate, so well crafted, so free of cliches, you want to cry because they aren't all like that. Michael Brady's Semper Fi is such a script and, as performed by the New Lincoln Theatre, should be seen even if--especially if--after the recent spate of war movies you're beginning to overdose on olive drab. Even more, I'd like to urge everybody to see this play while the Marines are still traveling into Panama.

In theory, the U.S. mission in Beirut, which is the occasion of Semper Fi, was to keep the peace. The Lebanese government, worried by the presence of several opposing political and religious factions in a country no larger than Connecticut, requested U.S. support. The Marine troops sent in were meant to--well, stand around and look tough so nobody would start any trouble. (American soldiers are the world's bouncers.) The rules of engagement drawn up by the Department of Defense define the operations of soldiers in peacetime. In Beirut, the ROE dictated that soldiers could keep their weapons loaded but could not fire or even prepare to fire unless "told to do so by a commissioned officer [or] unless [acting] in immediate self-defense where deadly force is authorized."

Semper Fi, however, is not a polemic on American foreign policy, nor is it a docudrama attempting to recreate one of Reagan's greatest flops (though most of what happens in the play is true). All you need to know about the Beirut incident can be told very briefly, and most of it is in a one-paragraph program note--that on October 23, 1983, a truck loaded with a ton of dynamite drove into the first-floor atrium of the marine barracks at Beirut International Airport, where it detonated its cargo and killed 241 American soldiers.

The play begins with Colonel Owen Corbett pleading with Brigadier General Davis and State Department representative Dennis Harper to amend the rules of engagement so that his troops may tighten security on the access road to their base and keep their weapons not only loaded but ready to fire. His request is denied, because "we must give the appearance of normalcy." That normalcy literally goes up in smoke soon after, and Colonel Corbett returns stateside to await the results of an investigation that seems bent on making him the scapegoat for the entire incident.

As Corbett broods over the loss of his men and chastises himself for their deaths--"I should have defied the rules and given the order to lock and load. . . . A commander is supposed to bring his men home--or die with them"--we learn that his whole life has centered around the Marine Corps. We also learn what this dedication has cost him. His wife left him when he reneged on his promise to retire after his 25 years were up; his older son, whom Corbett tried to pressure into joining up, refuses to speak to him; and his daughter, trying to be the son he wanted, has joined the Navy and volunteers repeatedly for combat duty, which is not and has never been open to women in the U.S. military. Brian is the middle child whose salvation may have been his father's indifference to him. Thrust suddenly into a "command" position, Brian is uncertain how to comfort or protect this man whom he never really knew. Brian's worldly-wise wife, Annie, offers some sincere, pragmatic advice to Corbett, even while acknowledging the substantial personal profit she stands to gain from her relationship to him--she's a television newscaster. Nor is Corbett himself any kind of saint--he's accused by Agnes, his ex-wife, of deliberately requesting hazardous duty in an attempt to win one more promotion before retiring.

Throughout this soul-searching, Corbett's aide-de-camp, Artie, a first-termer who Corbett hopes will continue on, watches as the Marine Corps motto--semper fidelis ("ever faithful")--gives way to that real but unspoken credo of the military everywhere: "Cover your ass." When the time comes for the old and the young soldier to test their loyalty to an irrevocably polluted organization, each does what he feels he must, and bears the other no ill will for his decision. There are no easy answers, here or anywhere, despite all government and media efforts to provide them to a public demanding guidance. "We're Marines! We always return for our dead," a tearful Artie says of his lost comrades. "Well, we brought 'em back--now will somebody please tell me what they died for?" Nobody does.

The center of the story is the tormented Owen Corbett. He's played superbly by Wantland Sandel Jr., who registers with exquisite subtlety the emotions of the company man and the bookish philosopher--both brought to the very edge of their faith. As Artie, Bill Mann brings a fresh-faced holy zeal to his role. I'm an Army veteran, and I found myself really believing that these two actors were marines--no easy task, after all the Hollywood commandos we've seen in the last few years.

Some of the civilian characters don't come off as well, perhaps because a military role gives an actor a structure he can play off; other characters, given more latitude, are apt to appear less decided. Don Regal plays Brian as such a wimp, I wondered whatever motivated Annie (played with maximum poise and savvy by Cynthia Denise Cook) to marry him. Franette Liebow as Agnes, however, is riveting in her brief appearance as devil's advocate in the canonization/martyrdom of her ex-husband. As General Davis, Leo Harmon is not really convincing as a military man but delivers a fine performance as a bureaucrat in brass, while Neal McCollam plays state rep Harper with a nicely muted sliminess. Pamela L. Parker's artful set makes the most of the small stage; her backlit tableaux provide some of the most moving memories of the evening.

Producer Charles Grippo was probably hoping only to exploit the energy of the Ollie North flap when he scheduled this play to close the season. I'd sure hate to think he had access to information the rest of us didn't. Like it or not, though, the U.S. Marines are sitting on top of a foreign steam kettle again, and that can't be bad for business at the New Lincoln. So if you, like me, are beginning to wonder about the number of soldiers dying recently in "accidents" occurring during "training exercises," you owe it to yourself to see this play now.

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