Any play by John Patrick Shanley is worthwhile, but Defiance is a far slighter script than other works of his that I've seen. The second play in a projected trilogy (the first is Doubt, which took the Pulitzer Prize and will be staged by the Denver Center Theatre Company in the spring), Defiance examines the state of the U.S. Marine Corps in 1971, when the Vietnam War had lost all vestige of legitimacy for most Americans, troop morale was low and drug use and racist incidents high. Big questions are raised here about conscience, obedience and what's worth fighting for; the play mentions the death of Martin Luther King and the flight of young Americans going to Canada to avoid the draft. But discussion and argument aren't the same thing as drama — and even the discussion seems limited. The Winter Soldier hearings, during which returning GIs discussed the atrocities they'd seen or committed, took place in the spring of 1971, but oddly, no one in Defiance directly addresses the issues raised by the war itself, whether ethical, political or military.
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Instead, the plot centers around a conflict at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where Lieutenant Colonel Morgan Littlefield yearns equally for advancement and for glory — "one shining, clean achievement," as he puts it. Learning of racial conflict in his camp, he asks Lee King, a young black captain, for help. King informs him of a housing problem faced by black recruits; Littlefield handles the problem and eventually tries to promote King. But King doesn't want the promotion. He doesn't want to be a spokesman for his race. Having been shattered by MLK's murder, he wants to be left alone and remain invisible. This character is so passive that he reminds me of the gardener Peter Sellers played in Being There, whose bland utterances were interpreted as gnomic gems of wisdom, or of Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, who responded, no matter what he was asked to do, "I would prefer not to." Kyle Haden manages to give King a certain measured dignity, but we need something more to keep us interested — a hint of inner conflict or repressed feeling.
Tracy Griswold makes Littlefield thoughtful and sympathetic, but at root we have no idea who this man is, either, though he does blossom into something like humanity during the scenes with his wife, Margaret, played by an appealing Glenna Kelly. The script also shows something of what makes Margaret tick, the smart, ironic and mildly rebellious spirit beneath the smooth facade of military wife. "Most men are just emotion," she muses at one point, not only turning the cliche on its head, but neatly deflating the hyper-male self-image the military cherishes.
Presented by the Arvada Center through November 4, Black Box Theater, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 720-898-7200, www.arvadacenter.org.
The chaplain who precipitates the final confrontation is brought to fine, smarmy, damp-handed life by Brian R. Hutchinson. But again, there's just no understanding his motivation.
The climax arrives when a young private reveals to Captain King a scandal so egregious that he is forced to abandon his aloofness. This scene is the most vivid in the play, and Kyle Steffen brings the young man's anguish to palpable life. Finally, we're thinking, a real issue, something that demands action. But then — far too quickly and easily — comes the resolution. Everything's over, and we're left to wonder, despite the occasional insights we've gleaned and the witty lines we've enjoyed, just what this play was all about.