What do you do for an encore after writing the most important and successful Broadway drama in a decade? If you’re John Patrick Shanley, you continue to explore the moral and ethical issues raised by “Doubt” within another hierarchical institution — the U.S. Marine Corps — from your first-hand experience. More ambitious but considerably less focused than Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize recipient, “Defiance” is witty and thought-provoking enough on its own terms to reward a visit to the Pasadena Playhouse.
Col. Morgan Littlefield (Kevin Kilner), 1st Battalion 6th Marines, is the Sister Aloysius of “Defiance,” the commander forced to wrestle with both societal change and sexual impropriety, mindful of the watchful eye of those above and the pressing needs of those below. The nun had to battle the growing secularization of early ’60s American life; here, at Camp Lejeune circa 1971, Littlefield hears the rising cry for “black power” that has begun to fuel tensions on the base.
This time, however, it’s the commander himself who is guilty of conduct unbecoming, having coupled with an enlisted man’s wife while investigating charges of racial discrimination at an off-base apartment complex. His fall from grace while on a mission for good is a nice twist on the accusations against Father Flynn in “Doubt,” but with this inciting incident occurring a full hour into the 90-minute action, “Defiance” lacks the wound-up spring that kept audiences of the previous play on the edge of their seats.
The first hour is devoted mostly to talk, albeit interesting and provocative talk on the nature of command and obedience, and it’s a conversation necessary to set up what follows.
Littlefield’s kitchen cabinet includes his new black exec, Capt. Kelly (Robert Manning Jr.), as aware of the need for change in the Corps as he is skeptical of it and unwilling to step up to facilitate it; a chaplain (Leo Marks) who perceives in the commander a fatal lack of moral compass and determines to bring him down; and wife Margaret (the likable Jordan Baker), tested on the battlefield of marriage, now a wry commentator on the follies of men who would presume to give orders determining the fates of others.
Once Littlefield’s adultery is exposed, with the cuckolded Marine (Dennis Flanagan) demanding to be sent to Vietnam to escape the shame, the chaplain contrives to put the situation in the hands of Kelly and the evening finally takes off. Will the colonel turn himself in, and should he do so? Dare he put a soldier in harm’s way under these circumstances? And whatever he does, will Kelly be brought down with him?
Kilner and Manning are riveting as they thrust and parry, with Manning particularly effective in communicating his excruciating moral crisis while showing no cracks in his military bearing.
Margaret Colin’s long-suffering wife was the center of attention in the original Gotham production; Manning’s tower of strength makes Capt. Kelly the focal point here. One is left to wonder whether “Defiance” is one of those plays that’s pretty much up for grabs by whichever actor makes the most of the opportunities afforded him, and whether that’s a strength in the writing or a flaw.
Be that as it may, “Defiance” is always watchable, with Andrew J. Robinson’s direction as crisp as the creases on Maggie Morgan’s uniforms, though one can argue with some of helmer’s interpretive choices. The chaplain needs a plausible mask of piety to believably carry out his machinations, but Robinson has Marks take the padre from buffoonery to malevolence with little sincerity in between.
It’s also hard to accept that an officer of such probity as Littlefield would throw his career away quite so heedlessly on a meaningless dalliance. This is primarily a textual matter, of course, but rushing the man’s confession and its aftermath doesn’t help. Steering Kilner to a slower, more nuanced series of reactions in which he gradually realizes the extent of his misdeed would ground the character and contribute to the pity the colonel should earn.
Film footage of USMC activities of the period, projected by Austin Switser during scene changes, deftly conjures up time and place, as do John Iacovelli’s spare but carefully crafted sets. The wood-on-corkboard wall hanging, Colonial bar stools and expansive liquor collection in the Littlefields’ quarters deserve special kudos, planting us squarely in the 1970s even before the characters’ attitudes do.