Theater Reviews

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Pasadena Playhouse
Through Feb. 18


Life is messy. Never more so than in John Patrick Shanley's riveting new play "Defiance," a worthy successor to the playwright's highly successful and celebrated "Doubt."

Both plays are part of a proposed trilogy that appears to be taking America's moral temperature -- at a time when the patient is particularly feverish -- by going back in time to examine some of the possible causes leading up to the current moment. But this description scarcely does justice to the scope and penetrating style of "Defiance," a play that keeps pushing forward into new territory just when you think you have a clear line on its intentions.

"Defiance" is set in 1971 at Camp Lejeune, a Marine base in North Carolina. The Vietnam War is raging on and the base is filled with an unusual amount of racial tension that has everyone on edge. Shanley uses the race problem as a springboard to examine the rigid, hierarchical structure of the military just as he used the sexual molestation charge in "Doubt" to question the authoritarian structure of the Catholic church.

At the center of the play are three Marines, each one a puzzle in his own disturbing way. Col. Littlefield (Kevin Kilner) is a tough but fair-minded career officer who is determined to get to the bottom of the camp's race problem. With the input of a black officer, Capt. King (Robert Manning Jr.), he manages to accomplish this task and even correct the problem, much to his credit. But along the way we find out something else about him -- a flagrant abuse of power -- that is extremely unpleasant and puts the character in a different light. It should be noted that Littlefield's son is a war resister who has fled the country to Canada, a fact he has great difficulty accepting.

King is the play's most enigmatic character, a well-educated Marine who has risen to the post of judge advocate on the base. King resents being drawn into the race problem for his input as a black man and, whenever possible, remains noncommittal and detached. Eventually, circumstances force him to choose between obeying his conscience or the military code he values so highly.

Chaplain White (Leo Marks), like the other two men, is not quite what we think he is at first, which is a kind of stereotype given to spouting religious platitudes and dogma with equal ease. As matters develop, his ideas and arguments become more forceful and sophisticated than we have been led to expect.

This is all to the good because "Defiance" is a play that keeps asking questions that lead to other questions, leaving a trail of moral ambiguity (just as in "Doubt") in its wake. Fortunately, the play's ideas flow naturally from the characters and the many narrative twists of the plot. Not many playwrights, in the space of 90 minutes no less, could pack this much intellectual and dramatic punch into one package while maintaining a light and witty touch.

Director Andrew J. Robinson's cast is first-rate, each actor offering a sharply delineated characterization that strikes sparks with the other cast members. Jordan Baker, as the colonel's perceptive wife, plays an important part in the proceedings, sometimes voicing some of the play's most important ideas; Baker's portrait of the conflicted Marine wife is spot on. Dennis Flanagan as the betrayed enlisted Marine and Joel Polis as an angry Marine also lend strong support.

Shanley's evenhanded, thoughtful writing has another salutary effect. One could well come away from this demanding play wondering if, on occasion, doubting the doubter or defying the defier aren't also virtues to be considered. Now there's a revolutionary idea.

DEFIANCE
Presented by the Pasadena Playhouse
Credits:
Playwright: John Patrick Shanley
Director: Andrew J. Robinson
Scenic designer: John Iacovelli
Lighting designer: Paulie Jenkins
Costume designer: Maggie Morgan
Video designer: Austin Switser
Musical composer/adaptor: Peter Erskine
Cast:
Col. Littlefield: Kevin Kilner
Margaret Littlefield: Jordan Baker
Capt. King: Robert Manning Jr.
Chaplain White: Leo Marks
Pvt. Davis: Dennis Flanagan
Gunney: Joel Polis
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