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Playwright John Patrick Shanley won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for his play, Doubt. Doubt concerns a mother superior trying to confront a parish priest who may be a sexual predator. Shanley has said that his new drama, Defiance, joins Doubt as part of a projected trilogy. But judging from the current production of the play at Theatre 3, Defiance could be called “Doubt-less.” It’s a much fuzzier play than Doubt.
Defiance is set on a Marine base in North Carolina in 1971. The Vietnam War is stalemated, and the country is torn by anti-war and civil rights protests. The troops are resentful, and there have already been two outbreaks of racial violence in the camp.
Lieutenant Colonel Morgan Littlefield is determined to turn his battalion around. Nearing retirement, he wants one, last ‘clean fight,’ as he says, to prove himself a real leader. He turns for help from the new chaplain, who is named White (David Fluitt), and the camp’s judge advocate, an African-American captain named Lee King. The chaplain is full of folksy sayings, but Captain King knows about prejudice. He knows about the Marines charged with insubordination. So the lieutenant colonel makes Captain King his point man to fight discrimination.
The trouble is that the captain doesn’t want to be used as a role model for black progress. He’s a good officer but he prefers to be a follower. He just wants to serve out his tour of duty.
Playwright Shanley used to write exuberant, quirky comedies like the film Moonstruck or the play Italian American Reconciliation. He’s shifted into these highly efficient but more conventional dramas about authority. Like Doubt, its predecessor, Defiance is about how authority is earned, how it’s abused, how it’s challenged. Questions of authority become pretty stark in systems that operate along lines of obedience, systems like the Catholic clergy or the Marine Corps.
Speaking of obedience and efficiency, the Theatre 3 production has an admirably spit-and-polish quality, thanks to director TJ Walsh. The cast — as seen in a preview performance — is uniformly excellent, especially Steven Pounders as the gung-ho Littlefield and Diane Worman as Littlefield’s drily ironic wife.
But all of these advantages at Theatre 3 only bring to light the weaknesses of the play. The military setting, the racial strife, the tension between discipline and dissent – all of these are familiar from earlier dramas like Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play. But the ultimate conflict in Defiance turns out not to be racial at all. A sexual indiscretion comes to light, and the chaplain wants to force the issue. The careers of both the Littlefield and the King could be ruined.
But this entire revelation makes the period setting and the racial strife somewhat beside the point. The final arguments could happen anywhere at any time. So the historic details seem stuck on to the play. What’s more, the characters are either too much like types or too unfinished. Ironically, Bryan Pitts, who plays Captain King, has tremendous presence on stage. It’s ironic because it might help the play’s conflict if he were younger, more troubled by uncertainty. The captain is the play’s pivotal character, the one who has to decide what to do. But Pitts seems the very embodiment of moral authority.
There’s little doubt, really, what he’ll eventually decide. So there’s little Doubt in Defiance.