NO DOUBT DEFIANCE IS DEFT
DEFIANCE AT PASADENA PLAYHOUSE
With Defiance, now making its West Coast debut at Pasadena Playhouse, John Patrick Shanley has fashioned the second installment in his unique three-part exploration of the rigidity of collectively recognized authority vs. the human condition. The first celebrated work of this proposed trilogy—his Pulitzer-winning play Doubt—was set in a Catholic school; with Defiance, Shanley again finds the perfect locale to deliberate the scariness of faith-based rules and what they ultimately breed: the U.S. military.
Set on a Marine base in the South in 1971, Defiance upsets the unspoken traditional armed services’ code that states it would be an outrage for a subordinate officer to accuse his commander of wrongdoing—especially when the dirty deed is the schtupping of the comely young wife of an enlisted man. When the accuser here turns out to be someone his offending superior has just chosen as his immediate second in command, and then factoring in that said officer is black, the stakes at risk in Shanley’s absorbing story become infinitely higher. “Morality is not a human thing,” it’s pondered in Defiance. “It’s like the ocean…it’s both with us and against us.”
From the first moments of Defiance, where a traditionally crusty drill sergeant (the always wonderful Joel Polis) barks orders at the audience substituting for quaking enlisted men, the characters and the situations in which they find themselves rapidly tumble forward between every respectful salute. Only Col. Littlefield’s wife has an opportunity to let her often amused, often discouraged humanity peek through the expected regime demanded by her marriage to the camp’s commander, crafting a cagey one-person Greek Chorus capable of cutting through the military bullshit with humor and humility. “Don’t hang your military career on me, Skip,” she tells her by-the-book and extremely ambitious husband at one point. “I wish you were a folksinger.”
As Col. Littlefield and his long-suffering spouse, married actors Kevin Kilner and Jordan Baker, in their first experience working together in both of their long and rich careers, are simply sensational. Their scenes together could be a textbook case for the inspirational give-and-take to which all actors aspire, particularly after the husband’s indiscretions are revealed in the final scene.
Offering a mesmerizing performance in this pivotal character, Robert Manning Jr. is a rock as Capt. King, the once-idealistic black officer who lost faith after the assassination of another man named King, offering a tightly wound. When Margaret comments to King during a meeting in the Littlefields’ home that the future is hitting them all like a brick, he replies, “I don’t know, ma’am…the future hasn’t done anything to me,” to which she quips in return: “Give it a while, Captain.” In Shanley’s hands, that prediction doesn’t take long at all to solidify.
Dennis Flanagan is indelible as the despondent Marine whose life is shattered by his wife’s dalliance, but the evening ultimately belongs to former Evidence Room mainstay Leo Marks who, as the slightly creepy camp chaplain, quickly proves his character to be someone oozing anything but Christian charity—all in the name of a moral rightness that would make George Dubya proud. Marks stealthily soars above everyone in creating the most initially benign yet eventually frightening characters onstage this season.
Working with a crackerjack design team, Andrew J. Robinson appears to have stepped back a bit to take an academic directorial approach to this material, making confrontations between characters discordant with the rest of his vision. Still, Shanley’s quickly-paced script and a brilliantly cast company lift Defiance defiantly into a place sure to provoke later mediation about the daunting nature of moral authority—and what makes our species so mindlessly obedient to its tenets.
Pasadena Playhouse is located at 39 S. El Molino Av., Pasadena; for tickets, call (626) 356-PLAY.