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Issue Date:  March 17, 2006

'Defiance' looks at racism in the military

John Patrick Shanley's new play lacks the passion of 'Doubt'


Racial tension, adultery and military rules collide in the world premiere of “Defiance,” John Patrick Shanley’s disappointing new play at New York’s City Center Stage 1.

Mr. Shanley’s previous play, “Doubt” (NCR, Dec. 10, 2004), opened at this same theater in the fall of 2004 before moving to Broadway, where it has become the largest-grossing nonmusical play in Broadway history and is still running. Along the way, it won a Pulitzer and a Tony, and in September a production will begin a 24-city tour. I don’t expect “Defiance” to follow this line.

Like “Defiance,” “Doubt” was a 90-minute work inspired in part by Mr. Shanley’s life. In that play, a nun at a 1960s Bronx parochial school suspects a parish priest of molesting one of the schoolboys. Mr. Shanley had attended Catholic school in the Bronx and had a relative who said he was molested by a priest, Fr. John Geoghan. (The latter was found guilty of child sexual abuse in another case and sent to prison, where he was murdered by a fellow inmate.)

In “Defiance,” which is set at the U.S. Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune, N.C., in 1971, two officers, one black and one white, are pitted against each other after Lt. Col. Morgan Littlefield (Stephen Lang), who is white, has a fling with the wife of an enlisted man under his command. When Capt. Lee King (Chris Chalk), a highly controlled, robot-like black executive officer, finds out, he must decide whether to confront his superior or ignore the matter, which could result in the enlisted man’s being sent to Vietnam, as he has requested in his despair. Col. Littlefield holds the power to send him.

The inspiration for this scenario goes back to Mr. Shanley’s days in the Marines at Camp Lejeune in the early 1970s. He had a barracks mate whose bride had slept with a staff sergeant. The offended man confided in Mr. Shanley.

Both “Doubt” and “Defiance” are what Mr. Shanley calls his hierarchy plays, works that cast the powerless individual against a powerful institution, first the Roman Catholic church, then the U.S. military. Mr. Shanley says the two plays weave incidents from his life into larger themes at work in the country during those times. Unfortunately, the theme of racism in “Defiance” is largely played out offstage -- as is the marital slip -- and is recounted in conversations that are talky rather than involving.

The play is more than half over before much-needed tension begins to creep in. This occurs in the show’s best scene in which Capt. King, having learned of the adultery from the enlisted man, confronts Chaplain White (Chris Bauer), who had sent the young man to him. The chaplain has been rather a buffoon, a typical stock character portrayal of a clergyperson, but now his claws come out. The chaplain has a grudge against Col. Littlefield and wants to use Capt. King to settle it. Since his profession prohibits him from betraying a trust, he places the responsibility on Capt. King. When the latter confronts him, the chaplain reminds him of the story of David and Bathsheba.

“He’s got to pay the price,” Chaplain White says. “Then good may come of it.”

Captain King doesn’t want the responsibility, but the chaplain persists. “You’re a leader,” he says, “but you run from it. When a man runs from his own character, the world gets smaller and smaller.”

Capt. King does confront Col. Littlefield in what should be the climactic final scene. The explosiveness is diluted by Mr. Lang’s performance, which never reveals the human behind his cardboard portrayal of the colonel. Capt. King explains why he has been so passionless up until now -- “My dream was shot down in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968” -- but as portrayed by Mr. Chalk, the transformation to a man of action doesn’t ring true. He tells Littlefield what he sees as the chaplain’s motive: “He wants your ass, my soul … ”

I wanted more. I wanted both of their souls, but I never found them.

Retta Blaney is the author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life through the Eyes of Actors, which features interviews with Kristin Chenoweth, Edward Herrmann, Liam Neeson, Phylicia Rashad, Vanessa Williams and others.

Related Web site
Manhattan Theatre Club

National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 2006

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