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Theater Review: John Patrick Shanley’s Defiance: Trouble Marine-Style, Circa 1971

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John Patrick Shanley again questions the contract of leaders with those they lead, loyalty, authority, and the code of conduct in his play Defiance, now given a quality production at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, California.

People who frequent the Pasadena Playhouse will remember that Shanley’s play, Doubt, came to the playhouse in 2005 before it went to Broadway. Shanley won a Pulitzer Prize for Doubt, a play that traced the mental anguish of Sister Aloysius. She is not completely sure of Father Flynn’s impropriety, yet knows she has enough evidence that she must act, even if the Catholic hierarchy would prefer inaction. Sister Aloysius finds her final loyalty to God and his teachings.

In Defiance, the second of what Shanley hopes will be a trilogy, initially the problem seems to be racism and the disunity it causes aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Some of the men have just returned from the Vietnam War, which is winding down. Some of the men are new recruits; the bottom of the barrel as recruiters are scrapping for people willing to enlist as the anti-war attitude in America grows stronger. The military is no longer segregated and African American men mingle with whites.

The base is run by Colonel Littlefield (Kevin Kilner) who only sees “black, white, blue or stupid.” He sees Marines and he sees the racial unrest as a Marine unity problem. He hopes that Captain King (Robert Manning, Jr.), an African American man who seems more Mr. Spock than human, will help him fix this problem and this will give Littlefield a chance for his one last promotion. He also elicits and then, with devastating curtness, dismisses the help of Chaplain White (Leo Marks). Where King wants to disappear in his uniform and do well but not stand out, White wants to meddle in the name of the Lord.

Though less suspenseful than Doubt, Defiance doesn’t condemn the institution or any of the characters. The man we would love to hate, played with unctuous righteousness by Leo Marks, is morally correct. Kilner is larger than life and fatally flawed, but sympathetic because of his warm relationship with his well-educated wife (a luminous Jordan Baker), whose hopes and dreams have been tied to her husband.

Shanley’s title makes one wonder. Against what or whom must there be defiance? Racism? Loyalty to one’s boss? Or the system to which one has pledged loyalty? In any case, it illustrates a hard lesson in ethics, just as Doubt did. In both cases, there are no easy answers.

Defiance ends on 18 February at the Pasadena Playhouse.

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