Shanley's Surge: Appraising Troop Morality

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Following a hit show has long been a difficult task in the theater--especially following up your own hit. John Patrick Shanley's 2004 play Doubt remains the most successful new Broadway drama in years. It won nearly every award a play can win, enjoyed a successful run on Broadway and is still touring cities around the country.

How do you follow an act like that? Shanley's subsequent play, Defiance, which premiered last year off-Broadway, did not cause a similar splash. It opened to mixed reviews and never made it to Broadway.

As with Doubt, the second major production of Defiance has been mounted here at the Pasadena Playhouse. Directed by Andrew J. Robinson, this revival gives us a clean, if uninspired look at Shanley's ambitious but problematic play.


Defiance takes place in 1971 at a Marine Corps barracks in the south. The drama takes its slow, leisurely time unfolding, but ultimately involves a minor indiscretion with major consequences. This conflict, centered on the pending promotion of Colonial Morgan Littlefield, provides the big showdown at the finale, but a more subtle battle rages throughout Defiance.

Early in the play, the base chaplain posits that "problems of troop morale are usually problems with troop morality." The struggle between morale and morality is the real drama in Shanley's play. As in Doubt, true believers are tested in Defiance. In that earlier play it was a nun's faith in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church; here, it's the mettle of two career officers in the U.S. Marine Corps. Both men, Colonial Littlefield (played by Kevin Kilner) and Captain Lee King (a strong Robert Manning, Jr) define themselves by their service to the Marines. Littlefield dreams of carrying out a singular heroic act, King (one of the corps' few black officers) simply wants to fit in.

Shanley has written that Defiance is to be the second of a proposed trilogy (that began with Doubt), one that: "explores specifics of my life story as it overlaps with major changes in the social fabric of this country." Indeed, just as Shanley attended a Catholic school in Bronx during the 1960's, he also served (as a Marine) at Camp Lejeune in the early 1970's. Because of this, Defiance feels authentic. Military life is shown frankly, without condescension or false grandeur. Likewise, the main characters feel real and never become symbols or stand-ins for ideology.

Unfortunately, Shanley's six characters and seven scenes are crowded out by countless ideas and themes. Most of them are interesting, but few are fully dramatized. The ninety-minute play addresses issues of race, power, religion, war, and yes, even feminism. All of these subjects are evoked intelligently, but few are probed deeply or even integrated into the flow of the narrative.

At one point in the play, Captain King says, "I don't think big ideas are that important." Clearly, John Patrick Shanley does not agree with his character. Defiance aspires to be an American Othello--with the Iago-like Chaplain and an army-issue sock substituting for Desdemona's handkerchief--but it also wants to be Hamlet and Lear at the same time. This handsome, but inert production, shows how American theater continues to benefit from Shanley's big ideas; we can only hope that future productions (and perhaps future revisions by the playwright) can turn these big ideas into a more convincing piece of theater. Defiance is loaded with a good deal of dramatic firepower, now all it needs is drill sergeant to whip it into shape.

John Patrick Shanley's Defiance runs through February 18 at the Pasadena Playhouse

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.