John Patrick Shanley’s play Defiance debuted at the Manhattan Theatre Club in February 2006, just months after Shanley’s Doubt won both a 2005 Tony Award for best play and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The next thing an artist does after a feat like that is almost certain to disappoint inflated expectations, and indeed Defiance feels relatively slight and underdeveloped as a play. (Hardly a one-hit wonder, Shanley also wrote the flicks Congo, Alive, and Joe Versus the Volcano, and won an Oscar for his Moonstruck screenplay in 1987.) In ninety minutes sans intermission, Defiance takes its time explicating its themes and setting up its scenario, but then doesn’t really do much with either.
It’s 1971, and there have been a series of racial incidents on a US Marine base in North Carolina, so Lieutenant Colonel Littlefield calls the not-so-coincidentally African American Captain Lee King over to his house to try to get his insights on the matter. He also invites the new chaplain, seemingly only to mock his input and put him down. King soon finds himself in a position of authority he feels was given to him for the wrong reasons, and is made even more uncomfortable by the unctuous attention of the slighted chaplain.
Playhouse West’s Bay Area premiere of Defiance is also the first play directed by Adam Fitzgerald in his role as managing artistic director, and he keeps the pace snappy from the bombastic opening with a barking gunnery sergeant (John Hale) addressing the audience as unruly soldiers right down to the abrupt, oddly tidy ending.
Jan Zimmerman’s living-room set is homey and period-appropriate, although the gray folding screen that awkwardly conceals it for other scenes makes the stage seem terribly cramped. The dress uniforms are more convincing than the combat fatigues, but costumer Cindy Sarmiento’s bright floral dresses are perfect for Littlefield’s friendly Southern belle wife Margaret.
David Jonathan Stewart is terrific as King, the stiff and formal military man with a strong sense of propriety, ideas that he keeps to himself, and a lot of anger just below the surface. Mike Reynolds at first appears naive and pollyannaish as Chaplain White, but his eager-to-please grin and syrupy Southern accent become chillingly sinister as the play progresses.
As Lt. Colonel Littlefield, Louis Parnell is never better than when he’s issuing brusque orders and throwing his weight around, but he wears his vulnerability far too much on his sleeve for all the talk about his vaunted leadership skills to ring true. And whenever he talks to his wife, he becomes so childlike that one almost expects him to start sucking his thumb.
Heather Mathieson is a sunny and appealing presence as Margaret, but the scenes between the couple feel limp and pointless, except to set up an ending that still feels unearned. There are references to some tension between them, but it doesn’t come through between his puppy-dog clinginess and her impenetrable good humor.
There’s a bit of backstory about the Littlefields’ son having run off to Canada to duck the draft, but only a bit: Shanley tells you only what you need to know about the characters, but he tells it to you three or four times to make sure you know it. Littlefield wants to make his mark on history before he goes. His wife reads “idea books” to try to understand how men think. King just wants to be a faceless man in uniform and be left alone. There’s some talk about characters playing their hands close to their chests, but in fact they show their hand early and often.
At times the play feels like dueling aphorisms at thirty paces, which at least affords the opportunity for some pithy quips: “Tell me again, what do the Lutherans believe?” Margaret asks King. “That they’re not Catholic,” he replies. It would be a bit more believable coming from an Irish Catholic like Shanley than a black Baptist like King, but never mind.
The odd thing about the play is that the race issue feels like a red herring. The opening talk about racial incidents followed by the introduction of the too-friendly white Alabama chaplain slighted in favor of the black captain seems at first like the set-up for an entirely different play than the one that actually happens. In one sense, it’s a relief that things don’t play out quite so predictably, but it’s hard not to notice that there would have been more dramatic heft to the play if it had.