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Defiance, at MTC's Stage I

Not having seen Defiance twice, I am very unsure of the contribution of sheer surprise to its huge power. Is it merely enormous, this contribution, or essential, something that will keep the play from having a similar magical punch the second time that one sees it. Surprise is in any case so surprising an element of Defiance that I find that I am unable to write about the play without referring to it. Having done that much, I might as well put up spoiler alerts and go ahead with writing about what I saw, instead of coyly contriving to sing the praises of something I don't identify.

I have therefore decided to write for readers who have already seen Defiance. I may have already said too much! If you haven't seen the play but plan to do so soon, try to forget this short paragraph, and come back afterward.

***

With Defiance, John Patrick Shanley has made his last play, the celebrated Doubt, into the first work in a cycle of highly dramatic meditations on authority. Like Doubt, Defiance is short, consisting of one long act broken into several scenes. It is equally successful at leaving the audience with a powerful conundrum about right and wrong, and about the balance, if any, that can be struck between them. Its construction, however, is not at all the same. In Doubt, the problem dawns not long after the show begins, and one marvels at Mr Shanley's ability to move his cloud of uncertainty at a steady but cumulative pace. That same skill, one can see after the fact, is put to use in Defiance to a very different end - the misdirection of the audience's expectations - so that, when the bombshell comes, well after the half-way point as the stopwatch flies, it is a real bombshell. Even the crusty New York audience at Stage I last night was audibly shocked. After which there was just enough moral argument to infect us with the urgency of matters that we were witnessing. Then we were out in the street, talking about it.

Until PFC Evan Davis steps into Captain Lee King's office, we don't know quite where Defiance is going, but that's all right, because the show holds our interest with very strong characters, and in fact we would rather postpone the moment when the play hunkers down to a confrontation about Black Power, Viet Nam, or some other issue of national concern. Set at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune in 1971, Defiance promises, or threatens, to tread some very familiar territory. We have Lt Col Littlefield, a propulsive Commanding Officer; Captain King, a tightly-sealed administrative officer with two tours of Viet Nam behind him; and Chaplain White, the newly-arrived chaplain, on his first post. Littlefield's wife, Margaret, is a very lively character, wonderfully enacted by Margaret Colin, but in terms of the action, her function is closer to that of a Greek chorus, which suits the period and moral climate of Defiance.

Morale at Camp Lejeune is low and getting lower, with increasing incidents of violence between soldiers of different races. Littlefield has summoned King to his home for a talk about the problem, and at the last moment invited the chaplain to sit in. When it presently becomes clear that the chaplain has no advice that Littlfield wants to hear, he is peremptorily dismissed, but by then he has spent enough time alone with King to develop a curiosity about him. King, ordered to stay behind, has his fears confirmed when Littlefield makes it clear that he seeks insights from King because King is black. 

King has become an exemplary officer by completely suppressing all black characteristics. Having toiled away as quietly as possible, disciplining soldiers according to official procedures, he has nonetheless drawn the somewhat mercurial attention of his commanding officer because of his skin color, and this only adds to his tense demeanor in Littlefield's living room. No matter how humdrum King manages to be, the colonel remains determined to seize him and promote him. For Littlefield is determined to retire with a bang, celebrated for having ended racial troubles at a vital base. King offers him a little something to work with: an apartment complex in the neighboring town is known to discriminate against black applicants. Delighted to have somewhere to start, Littlefield dismisses King and then genially dismisses his wife's protests. Margaret doesn't think that her husband needs to get involved in potentially explosive issues, but he's always game for "a good clean fight." Twice in the play, Margaret will reply to this with the observation that there's no such thing.

At the officers' gym Chaplain White tries to engage Captain King in a religious discussion while the latter lifts weights. Trying to get King to open up, however, only makes the chaplain look foolish, even a bit demented; today, we would say that he has boundary issues. It's true that men of God don't recognize boundaries, but the chaplain's onslaught is dense and doomed. Without being actually impatient with the play, we share King's indignation: why does he have to undergo this scene?

Then we're at a dance at the Officers' Club. Margaret has been abandoned at a table for five, because her husband stepped on a nail and can't dance, and, besides, is too busy shaking the right hands and making the right arrangements. She is bored by her situation (and a little tipsy), but any sense that Margaret is going to burst out in resentful feminism is kept uninflammably damp. We know that she and Littlefield have a problem; their college-aged son has defected to Canada rather than serve in Viet Nam. Margaret does not understand her son's action much better than her husband, but she hasn't stopped loving him, and and she doesn't think that Littlefield's habitually putting the boy's picture face-down is an intelligent thing to do. Is the rift deep enough to break up the couple? It seems unlikely, but, again, there are no other obvious lines of crisis. When King wanders up to the table, Margaret is just about to read a book, but she begs him to stay and makes it very clear that, notwithstanding her SMU training, there is nothing racist about her. She and King are talking about books when the colonel returns with the good news that King is going to be promoted, to serve as his own executive assistant. King is the opposite of overjoyed. He knows that he has been chosen for the color of his skin and he resents this. The climate of the play darkens considerably.

We next see King in his new office. A soldier, PFC Evans, is sent in. The soldier all but creeps through the door; he can hardly speak up. King is impatient from the outset, because Evans hasn't come through the normal channels, but straight from the chaplain's office. This is the kind of irksome irregularity that King regards as a lapse in hygiene. When Evans requests a transfer to Viet Nam, it is explained to him that Marines are no longer going to Viet Nam, but he repeats his request, and, when King denies it, he Requests Mast. This is the right that Marines have to go take their grievances to commanding officers personally. King recognizes the soldier's right, but warns him that Littlefield won't like it. Dismissed, the soldier pauses at the door until King asks him what the matter is. What's the matter is this: while he was at the discriminating apartment complex, in civilian clothes the better to improve his sleuthing, Littlefield stepped on a nail, and a young resident insisted on washing his wound, and one thing led to another, and now this young soldier has been cuckolded. The bombshell is amazingly unifying, drawing together so many little threads of story-line that one's head fairly swims. 

Everything, obviously, hangs on the actor playing the small part of the wounded soldier, and I'm happy to say that Jeremy Strong is indeed strong enough to play a broken man. "She was my little girl, and now I can't even look at her. Everything's ruined." The astonishing thing about this heartbreaking plot twist is that it doesn't seem to come out of left field, but, on the contrary, straight from a pitcher whom we hadn't seen moving. That Littlefield, a paragon of military honor, obviously in love with his critical but supportive wife, lapsed into adultery we don't doubt for a second; we're immediately caught up in the awful problem of deciding what to do next. King knows that strings can be pulled that will send this young man, at his own request, to certain death in Viet Nam, and he would probably pull them if it weren't for the odd provenance of Evans's complaint. The chaplain has lobbed the bomb with a real curve.

Our chaplain was Christopher McHale, filling in for Chris Bauer. Mr McHale's chaplain is a man unschooled in the ways of the Marine Corps but determined to learn; his real zeal is to take the Word of God to the military. In every way, he's following a higher authority than his commanding officer. This means that personal offenses don't deflect him, even if he's capable of feeling hurt. The possibility that he's motivated by a vengeful righteousness isn't ruled out, but the chaplain's motivation is not very important, as he himself tells the captain. What's important is the effect that his maneuver has on King. In forcing King to decide between doing the right thing and doing something else, he puts the man in an unbearable bind. His carapace is ripped open by the anger of knowing that ratting on Littleton may well end his own career as well. All but ricocheting among the pine trees while the imperturbable chaplain sits on a bench with his lunchbox, eating a sandwich, King explodes with invective, the black man he used to be once more.

The final scene, with its multiple confrontations, has to be one of the most satisfying finales that I've ever sat through. Initially a struggle between King and Littlefield, it soon becomes a struggle within Littlefield himself, as he strains to hold onto the idea that, surely, a life of so much heroism and good works cannot be undone by one little lapse. This is where Mr Strong's performance really does its work: that "little lapse" requires big-time repentance. Margaret is quite brilliantly introduced into the scene as an inadvertent eavesdropper, and we brace for marital breakdown on top of military dishonor. Littlefield's world comes undone with amazing speed.

Chris Chalk, as King, and Stephen Lang, as Littlefield, fuel their performances with the power of several tank divisions. Mr Lang's Littlefield, his voice now routinely hoarse from a lifetime of barking orders, has a genius for posture. He exercises authority with formidable self-confidence and plenty of bluster, while doing everything possible to stifle reflection. He wants to be a hero; he wants, as Margaret puts it, to be young. The loss of youth, and the obligation to reflect, strand Littlefied in incomprehensible terrain. It is effortlessly easy to see how, deprived of his uniform and his position on the base, walking the earth, as it were, incognito, he would be no better than Zeus if a pretty face looked up to him. Easy to see, too, how quickly he would forget the incident once back in his natural habitat. He is so surprised when King confronts him that he can't pretend to deny the charge.

Mr Chalk is almost frightening as the deeply conflicted King. He is a strong man for whom all real hope was extinguished by the assassination of Martin Luther King. His eyes, somewhat exophthalmic, seem about to pop out of his head, as escape valves for impossibly contained anger. With all but his hands and his head wrapped up in beautifully-kept (and extremely good-looking) uniforms, Mr Chalk's face is a face from which expression has been exiled. The banishment hasn't worked; such edicts never do. Although impassive at any given moment, the face is convulsed over time. Mr Chalk's performance is, I think, genuinely indelible.

Underlying everything is the chaplain's argument that authority that doesn't come from God, and that is not executed in the name of God, means nothing, and is bound unravel. "I don't believe in God," says the chaplain, "God is a fact." Mr Shanley has so constructed his tale that he is able to make powerful use of the story of David and Bathsheba; in this version, the Uriah even asks for death himself. And so a play that seems for half its length to be going nowhere in particular (however amiably theatrical about doing so) pulls into sudden mortal focus with a terrifying slicing sound.

The military life is one that I could never imagine myself in. I don't mean the danger and the hardship. Although I'd hate them, they're not what makes my military life a "does not compute" concept. It's that I don't have an obedient bone in my body. If you are counting on me to do something in a certain way, as distinct from what seems best to me at the time, you will be disappointed; knowing this about myself, I no longer promise to follow orders. I'd never see action if I were a soldier; I'd be court-martialled in a week. Lt Col Littlefield is a man whom I could not bear to spend thirty seconds with, and I was a lot more comfortable in Doubt's world of churches and parochial schools. But I could not tell you which play I preferred, and, happily, there's no need to state a preference. Like Doubt, Defiance explores the use and abuse of authority as keenly as its source. While I disagree with the chaplain's thesis that all righteous authority flows from God, I'm not sure where the kind of authority that I respect - and respect in a way that obviates obedience - does come from.

Doug Hughes directs this premier production of Defiance with unsurpassed command of the stage. He's helped by the fluid and telling sets that we've come to expect from John King Beatty; by the evocative lighting design of Pat Collins; and by Catherine Zuber's very slightly jarring choice of costumes for Ms Colin. (I don't envy the actors playing officers their costume changes.) David van Tieghem's original music was occasionally a bit too loud for the room; it seemed to deny the possibility of subtlety in an environment where people kept stumbling on it. Trevor Long, as a gunnery sergeant, did a fine job of setting the tone of life for "the men" with an opening harangue that ironically made it clear how deeply a married soldier would rely upon his wife's chastity. When the show comes to a theatre near you, I hope that the production's just as fine. Defiance is a great play that requires great players, and at the MTC it's got them.

The moral dimension of Defiance prevents its structural audacity from swamping the evening with show-offy razzle-dazzle. That same audacity prevents the moral arguments from curdling tediously into boring tirades. It is therefore difficult to say from which angle, the formal or the substantial, Defiance is the more remarkable play. Happily, as I say... (April 2006)

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