The playwright John Patrick Shanley commenting on his own work says, “Defiance is a necessary step in the life of an individual and in the life of a nation, but it is an intermediate step.”
Understanding the play as a “step” in part explains its shape and size: short, sharp, inconclusive. Defiance is the second play in a planned trilogy begun with Shanley’s play Doubt. It represents a brief, jolting experience of “defiance” in a context where unquestioning obedience prevails, in the U.S Marines. Set in 1971 at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, the work delivers a shock. A black officer, Captain Lee King (Chris Chalk), considers confronting the base’s white CEO, Lt. Colonel Littlefield (Stephen Lang), with his reputed sexual misbehavior twenty years earlier with a PFC’s wife.
A black officer accusing a white one, and of higher rank, not only reverses the usual social status quo, it raises the prior, human issue about the source of true moral authority. Littlefield is taken aback by the accusation, but quickly recovers. He, the commanding officer, has no intention of knuckling under either to the power of law or the more amorphous claims of moral rectitude. The irony is that Capt King, although not a lawyer, has been serving as prosecutor at Camp Lejeune’s “court.” He must indict or at least accuse the Colonel who, in their central confrontation, reminds King of the rules of military rank as well as protocol. King says it clearly: “I will defy you.”
The military style of slam bang Q and A, those barks meant to terrorize enlisted men into submission, cow the audience as well. In one sense, racism is secondary to both the sexual crime and to the immediate challenge of insubordination, or “defiance.” A further irony rises from Littlefield’s quite separate commitment to combating racism in the nearby town as in his camp, an effort seen by all including his wife as naive. There are no rules in the Marine’s written code covering the Colonel’s past behavior. A powerful man coerced the powerless wife of a PFC. Nor are there rules applying to the situation in the present. Human conduct is on trial.
Mrs. Littlefield (Margaret Colin) accepts this revival of the past with equanimity, letting her unflappable response imply that she recognizes sexual misconduct as one of the games that little boys play. Defiance presents the two situations as parallel in their separate contexts: marital infidelity and military crime. The Colonel is the obvious bridge between them.
The timing of PFC Davis’s revelation is problematic; just why so long a time elapses between the event and the wife’s disclosure remains somewhat murky. What matters is that Davis desperately wants a transfer out of Camp Lejeune. His wish, in terms of the play’s structure, means that playwright Shanley can move his case through the hierarchy of command calling for a discussion of the basic issues at each level, including the relevant moral and spiritual arguments through Chaplain White (Chris Bauer), acting on his first mission.
With the character of Chaplain White, an outspoken type who says he doesn’t believe in God, Shanley develops the theme introduced by his cleric in Doubt. Captain King, the first black marine in a position of command, is handed the opportunity to shake the power structure and he seizes it. His challenge to Littlefield is foolproof. The Colonel cannot reprimand the Captain publicly without damning himself and bringing down both the social and the military hierarchy under attack .
Shanley chooses an equivocal posture here with the military context; or, rather, he chooses the military context in order to dramatize the equivocal nature of experience. The Marines as a dramatic entity describe an attitude, a fixed either-or, yes-no, to human predilections better described in shades of gray. Gridlock definitions on which military order is based tend to simplify meanings of responsibility and authority. So, the play aims to expose the implications, unspoken assumptions, commonplaces hovering over a seemingly straightforward event, those that impede the practical day-to-day operation of organizations depending upon hierarchy: the military, the church, university, corporations, family.
The point is simple, the consequences far from it. As noted, Shanley tackled similar circumstances of the Episcopal church with Doubt, a human propensity that inhibits behavior based on faith. In Defiance Chaplain White visits the Littlefields in an effort to defuse the atmosphere in camp resulting from rumor, speculation and gossip about the commander’s sexual misconduct. In other words, both plays expose conditions of belief and obedience as necessary to regulation, to structure, whereas these qualities otherwise tend to be categorized as childish or at best typical of mindless complacency. In this, Shanley shares the Socratic conviction that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Not to suggest that the topics surveyed, problems of race and racism, love and duty, submit to easy resolution onstage or off. This rather is to notice that Shanley is engaged and wants his audience to be likewise.
The acting is brilliant, exceptional by Chris Bauer, and the production overall is professional in every way. The stage of City Center Stage I is vast, so at times the disparity between actual space and intimate dramatic action caused a slight sense of dislocation. The commanding officer’s living room in his house on the base sprawled like a playing field, though his office is scaled more reasonably.