Allen Cole as Col. Wayland Patterson, left, derides Lt. Col. Jack Hackett (Alan Sutterfield) for his arrogance.

Gulf war incident inspires
morality play

The story takes place in the unique environment of a war zone, but the issues raised --honor vs. expediency, taking responsibility for one's actions vs. the natural desire to avoid unpleasant consequences --prove universal in Manoa Valley Theatre's production of "Gunfighter."

"Gunfighter," continues at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays through June 6 at Manoa Valley Theatre. Tickets are $25. Call 988-6131.

Playwright Mark Medoff's thoughtful and well-written account of an incident in which U.S. soldiers were misidentified as Iraqis and killed by "friendly fire" could just as easily be about local politicians doing damage control when faced with a probe of campaign finances, or about high-placed corporate executives attempting to evade responsibility for marketing unsafe products.

Medoff's fallen hero, Army Lt. Col. Jack Hackett, was on track for promotion to general until the night his unit was ordered on a badly conceived mission under horrendous flying conditions. No one in the chain of command caught the computer error that caused a American ground unit to be misidentified as Iraqi, and Hackett was ordered to fire on the "enemy" unit. Two U.S. soldiers were killed.

The story is a fictionalized account of the 1991 incident in which Lt. Col. Ralph Hayles was relieved of his command, then publicly identified as responsible for "friendly fire" deaths in the Persian Gulf. Hayles, who was eventually granted full honorable retirement after additional information appeared in the Wall Street Journal, collaborated with Medoff on a screenplay that eventually became the script of "Gunfighter."

Alan Sutterfield as Hackett and Allen Cole (Col. Wayland Patterson) are perfectly matched as adversaries in a classic battle between honor and expediency. Sutterfield plays Hackett as self-confident almost to the point of arrogance as the successful and popular commander of an elite helicopter gunship unit known as the Gunfighters.

Sutterfield is also believable in Act II as an almost-broken man torn between doing what's "right" for the Army and defending his family and reputation.

We root for Hackett from start to finish even if his loyalty to the Army may be incomprehensible to those who lack knowledge of military values.

Cole quickly becomes the guy we love to hate, thanks to his perfect portrayal of a unctuous "leader" quick to claim credit for his subordinates' successes and just as quick to let them take the blame when things go wrong. The platitudes that Patterson use as a shield effectively represent the thinking of a system in which individuals may be sacrificed to preserve the integrity of the unit or to complete a mission in record time.

Tara J. Ziegler (Erin Seidman) makes an impressive MVT debut with her portrayal of a sexy young television reporter who arrives with an anti-military attitude that Hackett and his men do little to defuse, and who then hastens to reveal Hackett's name when she breaks the "friendly fire" story.

Seidman is the narrator, and Ziegler does a remarkable job of conveying her gradual change of perspective and loss of innocence so that it appears natural, rather than a plot device. Ziegler's skill at revealing the insecurities behind Seidman's brash facade makes the reporter's humanity evident.

Wyoming Rossett (Warrant Officer Theron "Lash" Larue) stands out as the hard-drinking helicopter pilot who pushes Seidman into investigating the cover up; Kyra Poppler (Lt. Ramirez) smolders as an officer who responds to Patterson's sexual advances; and MVT Producing Director Dwight T. Martin (Gen. Starbuck) does a fine job as an unscrupulous officer who makes it clear that he doesn't want to know about any "friendly fire" incidents involving units under his command.

As spouses of the key players, Laurie Tanoura is all claws and venom as a politically shrewd military wife who overlooks Patterson's infidelities on his climb to general rank, while Frankie Enos plays Hackett's loyal partner, watching out for his men's families during the war, then standing by him through the bad times that follow.

Director Joyce Maltby employs the talents of Sandy Sandelin (lighting), Jason Taglianetti (audio engineering) and Mark Archibald (video design and editing) in creating a sense of what it was like to be in a helicopter gunship and to suggest the high-tech aspects of modern American-style warfare

Maltby moves this fascinating story forward at a crisp pace. The outcome would seem improbable were it not true. The final message that American forces continue to kill each other with "friendly fire" makes this gripping drama relevant theater for that reason as well.

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