Category: Archive

Marine morality

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By all reports, playwright John Patrick Shanley is planning a theatrical triptych, the first panel being, of course, “Doubt,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, which is still running strong on Broadway with an excellent, recently installed second cast.
“Defiance,” at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage I on West 55th Street, where “Doubt” faced its first, pre-Broadway audience on Nov. 21, 2004, is clearly the second and central portion of Shanley’s troika.
Although the prolific playwright has been quoted as saying he has no clear idea what the third play will be like, it’s safe to say that it will very probably possess a strong and positive moral core and will be, like the plays that preceded it, derived more or less directly from his own experience.
“Doubt” is set in a Roman Catholic Church school in the Bronx in 1964, when the playwright, who is now 55, was around 14.
The setting for “defiance,” is Camp Lejeune, a U.S. marine base in North Carolina, and the time is the spring of 1971, when Shanley was barely over 20.
The playwright’s Playbill biography claims that he was “a Flame Thrower Gunner in the United States Marine Corps from 1970 to 1972,” and that “he served primarily at Camp Lejeune,” it’s quite safe to assume that he knows what he’s writing about.
A “Defiance” cast member has quoted Shanley as saying that his time in the Marines was the first occasion on which he’d ever experienced human kindness, a startling admission, but perhaps understandable to anyone familiar with “Beggars in the House of Plenty,” an early play in which he appears to have dealt, more or less, candidly with members of his own family, centering on the domestic combat between a boy in his late teens and his difficult, obdurate father, while the mother stands on the sidelines, doing the best she can, but eventually losing her grip.
“Defiance” is not, as it might have been expected to be, considering Shanley’s background, the story of a young recruit struggling with the rigors and demands of the Marines.
What it is, primarily, is a study of the moral rigidity demanded by an organization adhering, one way or another, to a strictly imposed, preordained behavioral code.
The organization about which Shanley is writing is, of course, the Marine Corps of which he was once a part, but it wouldn’t seem entirely implausible to envision the playwright’s story, and issues with which it deals, transferred to the world of medicine, law, or even business, if it’s possible to find islands of morality in the scandal-wracked annals of the contemporary universe of trade and commerce.
The hero of “Defiance,” if there can allowably said to be a hero, is a stiff-backed, but neither stupid nor inhumane Marine Officer, Lt. Colonel Littlefield, perhaps 50 years old or thereabouts, living on the fetid North Carolina base with his loyal, but rather hard-pressed wife, Margaret, whom he generally refers to as “Meg.”
Stephen Lang and Margaret Colin are the colonel and his lady, and both of them are wholly credible and enormously effective, giving performances which make audiences wonder why they aren’t seen on New York stages more regularly.
Lang, it should be noted, pretty much made his name playing a fairly similar military man a couple of decades ago in Aaron Sorkin’s “A Few Good Men,” creating a role eventually played in the drama’s film version by Jack Nicholson.
At issue in “Defiance is racial strife on the base, and, most particularly, social prejudice in a nearby housing complex. The residential establishment, catering, for the most part, to Lejeune’s enlisted men and their families, has evidently been practicing racial prejudices, refusing space to the camp’s African-American families.
At first, the Littlefields appear to be a childless couple, but eventually Shanley reveals the fact that they have a son, Joe, apparently heir only offspring, who has fled to Canada to avoid participating in the war in Vietnam.
The toll the boy’s action has taken on his parents’ marriage is implied rather than specifically articulated, but it hovers over the play like the shadow of a circling hawk.
A gifted black officer, Capt. Lee King, assigned to the base’s JAG division, Judge Advocate General, is made aware of the secret, intolerable event which, appearing late in the play, makes Shanley’s plot turn.
King, at least as inflexible and as relentlessly demanding of himself as Colonel Littlefield is, or appears to be, finds himself in a position which depending how he handles it, will determine the future of both Littlefields, not to mention, in a sense, his own.
The play, which might almost as easily have been titled “Discipline,” is dedicated to the late August Wilson, whom Shanley, generously and accurately, refers to in a program note as ‘a great American playwright.”
“Defiance,” perhaps neither as well-crafted nor as original as “Doubt,” is nevertheless compelling from the first word to the last, particularly in a fluid MTC production directed by Doug Hughes, who performed the same function for “Doubt.” The smoothness from which “defiance” benefits so enormously stems in part from John Lee Beatty’s scenic design, which lends an invaluable sense of unification to Shanley’s gripping story, which, it must be admitted, tends to wobble and wander the base just a bit.
Hughes’s cast couldn’t be better, particularly as obtains to Chris Chalk, a real find as Capt. King, here giving a breakout performance.
Chris Bauer, as the compassionate Chaplain White, scores as a base pastor, a decent man who might be better suited by nature to life as a civilian.
Two young actors deliver strong work as a pair of youthful participants in the life of Camp Lejeune, Trevor Long, as an unnamed Gunnery Sergeant, strikes precisely the right note in the brief stage time his character is given.
An especially strong contribution is made by Jeremy Strong as P.F.C. Evan Davis, whose intense personal torment leads him, late in the play, to open his soul to Captain White, his company’s commanding officer.
What he reveals to the captain makes Shanley’s plot approach the boiling point, and, eventually, go beyond it. Strong’s part is brief, but his performance is stunning.
Special mention should b e made regarding Margaret Colin’s beautiful work as Margaret Littlefield, a loyal wife who once saw “a diamond” in her husband’s eyes, but no longer finds it there. In an underwritten role which could have been something of a cypher in the hands of a lesser actress, Colin provides the “diamond” which makes the role shine deeply.
With each play, John Patrick Shanley stands, more and more clearly, as one of the American theater’s most valuable assets.

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