A fascinating footnote in American history, the real-life case of West Point cadet Johnson C. Whittaker is the potent subject matter of “Matter of Honor,” the generally absorbing military mystery now in its world premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse. Some sharp acting, story’s inherent interest and the continuing relevance of the issues the play addresses more than make up for uneven dramaturgy and a vacancy in the most important role.
It’s 1880, and only one African-American has managed to graduate from West Point, then as now embattled by politicians and a citizenry skeptical of its self-protective promotion of a warrior caste. The nature of a professional military is directly called into question when cadet Whittaker (Cedric Sanders) is found hogtied, beaten and tortured (“cut, the way farmers mark livestock”), and the Army summons independent investigator Chase (Eric Lutes) to root out the perpetrators and cooperate in the inevitable damage control.
Chase is drawn as that staple of all military thrillers, from “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” to “A Few Good Men,” the flippant civilian, uniformed or not, whose cynicism is gradually replaced by a grudging respect as he seeks to uncover the truth (which, of course, authority can’t handle). Here his labors reveal an endemic and officially sanctioned racism marked by the mass shunning by cadets known as “silencing,” symptomatic of the Army’s deep ambivalence toward black officers that much of the nation supposedly shared.
But was Whittaker’s horrific treatment, reenacted in mime upstage against billows of red smoke, the logical next step in an effort to remove him? Or, as much of the evidence and logic start to suggest and Chase comes to believe, did Whittaker himself stage the incident as his ultimate existential response? That Chepiga fails to close the book on the mystery works to the play’s advantage even as his heavy-handed dialogue (“Why do you keep insisting there are sides?”/”Why do you keep pretending there aren’t?”) and awkward flash-forwards to 1882 conspire against it.
Chase, however, is the central problem. Actor Lutes’ unwillingness or inability to find a throughline for his fuzzily written character prompts him to play each moment in isolation from the rest. Posing (one leg bent and ahead of the other is his favorite) to bark questions like an avenging angel or toss out zingers in a nyah-nyah singsong, Lutes bounds or lurches across the stage in Maggie Morgan’s unflattering mustard-colored suit with no coherence of purpose, leaving the audience with no surrogate through whom we can sort out the moral issues at stake.
The military men’s performances, like their costumes, are better tailored. South Coast Rep regular Richard Doyle and young Steve Coombs bring nuance and authenticity to their stereotypes: respectively, the honor-is-everything commandant who refuses to believe his cadets capable of treachery, and the sinister Southern cadet ringleader convinced “those people” don’t belong in the corps.Equally authentic is Sanders’ believably anguished Whittaker, recruited to the Academy by vote-seeking backwoods pols but determined to make the most of an opportunity he never sought. His chilling descriptions and acting out of Academy life (in some of Chepiga’s strongest writing) give the lie to hazing as mere schoolboy pranks. More hints from Sanders as to Whittaker’s possible culpability might deepen the drama, but he nevertheless impresses as a living embodiment of how one can fight racism with probity and grace.
Helmer Scott Schwartz keeps the action moving briskly, sometimes too much, as when the cast applies unnatural snare-drum-like cue pickup to interrogations. Smash cuts between scenes, punctuated by amplified echoing crashes and music (heavy on the bugles, natch) are often overdone but arrest attention as they’re meant to.
Most striking effect, albeit owing a fairly obvious debt to David Grindley’s London and Gotham “Journey’s End” revival, is the slow reveal of Robert Brill’s re-creation of the imposing West Point facade, rising as high as the eye can see and reminding us — directly apropos to the Whittaker story — of the tendency of any public institution to dwarf those beneath it, whether standing in admiration or in opposition.