John Patrick Shanley won the 2005 playwriting Pulitzer for his drama Doubt. Set in a Bronx Catholic middle school in the early 1960s, that work pitted the school’s principal, a dour disciplinarian named Sister Aloysius, against a charismatic new priest whom she believed to be a child molester. How the sister convinces a young nun — and the audience — of the charming priest’s crimes made the story a relentless thriller. Doubt’suncertainty (how much do we really trust Sister Aloysius, anyway?) kept us on the edge of our seats, and it’s why Shanley didn’t simply call his play Guilt. His newest work, Defiance, is a sequel — the middle child of what Shanley says will be a trilogy of plays about moral dilemmas. Fans of the first play may be disappointed by the new one’s lack of similar suspense, but the Pasadena Playhouse’s production nevertheless provides a night of loud, confrontational theater.
Defiance is set during 1971 and in an institution only slightly less rigid than the Catholic Church — the U.S. Marine Corps. Racial tensions are tearing apart North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune, even as America’s divisive involvement in Vietnam is just beginning to slacken. Lieutenant Colonel Morgan Littlefield (Kevin Kilner), suspects disgruntled black enlisted men are to blame for the discord, until his judge advocate, Captain Lee King (Robert Manning Jr.), points out that it’s actually the powerlessness of these African-Americans, especially when they face discrimination in off-post civilian housing, that fuels their anger. Littlefield is taken aback by this news but then, action figure that he is, reverses field and sets out to investigate the housing bias.
The colonel’s schooling in race relations, however, sets in motion a fateful collaboration as Littlefield promotes King to be his executive officer — both in recognition of the JAG’s talent and, we suspect, to make a symbolic example of the Corps’ color-blindness. The colonel’s choice comes with unforeseen risks. Captain King, who is black, is an aloof and almost robotically honest soldier who has risen through the enlisted ranks on his own resources. He resents any attempts to turn him into an affirmative-action poster boy, and only reluctantly accepts his new position — which Littlefield has jumped over three white officers to offer.
There, in the XO’s office, King might have thrived with his steely efficiency and pressed khakis, if it weren’t for a wild-card character. Chaplain White (Leo Marks) is a remarkable personality, the affable son of an alcoholic father and one given to reciting lines from “The Face on the Barroom Floor.” White was a civilian preacher before joining the Marines and is serving his first on-post congregation. He’s a squirrelly figure who jokes in a Southern drawl and takes many verbal lumps from Littlefield, but who still gets under everyone’s skin. We’re not quite sure who he resembles most — Othello’s tormentor Iago, perhaps, or the backstabbing Lieutenant Keefer from The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. Chaplain White, who annoyingly speaks in a stream of aphoristic homilies, may even remind some of Sheriff Lou Ford in the pulp crime novel The Killer Inside Me.
Nevertheless, when an enlisted man alleges to the chaplain that Littlefield slept with the man’s wife, the padre sends him straight to Captain King. White may as well have fired a torpedo at Littlefield’s career, and the final moments of Defiance rest with King’s decision about how to handle this serious charge against his commander.
Defiance’s strength lies in Shanley’s solidly drawn characters, who also include Littlefield’s independent-minded wife, Margaret (Jordan Baker), a woman who has lemonade at the ready for guests while reading Future Shock in her spare time. The playwright knows what he’s up against in taking on a military theme in a country at war. He has to make the colonel likable yet authentic at the same time, and his Littlefield is a curt but fair-minded man who isn’t above softening when he tells Margaret about his good chances of making full-bird colonel. Likewise, Captain King cannot be cut from a movie-of-the-week mold of hero — he’s just a man seeking to bury himself and his racial identity in the green world of the Marines. Perhaps Shanley’s toughest job was constructing a Chaplain White who veers from being the snake in the Garden to conscience of the Corps, but who, ultimately, is a man who seeks the truth in order to do bad things.
Shanley, however, undermines his play by spending most of his attention on his characters and not enough on the narrative. Unlike Doubt, in which the story’s crime and villain were proposed almost immediately, Defiance spends most of its 90 minutes securing the psychological perimeter around each character until, rather late in the evening, the enlisted man (Dennis Flanagan) steps into Captain King’s office announcing that Littlefield “laid my wife.” From there, the evening races at a dizzying velocity to a final confrontation between King and Littlefield.
The end result is a detailed study of military life in a country exhausted by war and wary of racial strife. But there’s little payoff. In this context, the play’s talk painfully becomes talky and we almost wish for an extra scene showing the colonel a’laying the private’s wife.
Director Andrew J. Robinson’s choices are safe but sound ones. Like Shanley, he seems aware of the delicate balance between audience interest in military affairs and antipathy to authority figures. His marching orders to the cast are straightforward — carve out as much individual stage territory as possible. Kevin Kilner is suitably winning as Colonel Littlefield, which is to say, we sympathize with the weakness of his flesh, leatherneck notwithstanding. Robert Manning Jr. at first seems too stiff to play anywhere outside of a body bag, but soon his cool demeanor and metronomic elocution make sense for a man trying to make it in the world without help from anyone.
Leo Marks’ chaplain, who spends his lunchtime alone on a bench eating his wife’s peanut-butter sandwiches, is a portrait of the banality of good. “All you hairy-chested men make me laugh,” he tells King, a tripwire line Shanley uses to signal us that the chaplain’s search for a higher justice is simply fanaticism under color of authority. Still, we’re never quite clear as to why this inside-out Sister Aloysius is so obsessed with bringing down Littlefield — because the colonel doesn’t go to church or speak of his draft-dodging son? Because one afternoon he resembled King David taking to bed a soldier’s wife?
The show’s design is simple but effective. John Iacovelli’s set effortlessly transitions from the hangarlike emptiness of Quonset hut interiors to the forced hominess of the Littlefields’ wood-paneled base quarters. Paulie Jenkins’ lighting plot empathetically shades the characters’ darker personality corners while Austin Switser’s scene-transition videos of Marines rather needlessly remind us of the play’s time and place. Maggie Morgan’s costumes set an authentic period tone, though I’m not sure that Marines ever wore khaki trousers instead of their traditional olives. Then again, in a play where men are brought down for not keeping their pants on, this probably matters little.
DEFIANCE | By JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY | PASADENA PLAYHOUSE, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena | Through Feb. 18 | (626) 356-PLAY