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Moral investigations

John Patrick Shanley tackles racism and adultery on a Marine base in the noble, albeit lopsided, `Defiance.'

January 22, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

The drama of ideas hasn't been in vogue for ages. George Bernard Shaw, the master of the form, was one of the few playwrights in the last hundred years capable of turning heady intellectual argument into something theatrically electric. In his hands, the collision of perspectives, delivered in the crispest of English prose, had an intensity that could leave even shrieking melodrama in the dust.

John Patrick Shanley reinvigorated the genre on American shores with his 2004 play "Doubt," a streamlined dramatic face-off between a martinet nun and a likable priest she suspects of wrongdoing with a minor. That conflict launched a philosophical inquiry into the problem of uncertainty as it unfolds in the zealous prosecution of an alleged evil. In "Defiance," the second installment in a planned trilogy of distinct yet thematically linked works, Shanley continues to explore the slippery road of the individual conscience in a strict, hierarchical institutional setting.

If "Defiance," which had its West Coast premiere Friday at the Pasadena Playhouse, doesn't quite possess the theatrical clarity of "Doubt," it shares its passion for moral investigation. It also further underscores the way human complexity and contradiction can muddy the waters for quick and clean justice.

Unfortunately, the characters in Shanley's latest are less sharply developed than those of its predecessor. Captured only flickeringly in their full humanity, they're basically mouthpieces in a carefully organized debate. The result is a noble effort that's ultimately talky, lopsided and strained.

Col. Morgan Littlefield (Kevin Kilner), an ambitious career military man, has received reports of a number of racial incidents in his battalion. It is spring 1971, three years after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King. The Black Power movement, which has been gaining national momentum, has reached North Carolina's Camp Lejeune, setting off disruptive tremors that Littlefield wants to address before they turn into something more dangerously seismic.

Not sure how to proceed, he calls on Capt. Lee King (Robert Manning Jr.), a promising African American enlisted man who was recommended to Officer Candidates School. King doesn't appreciate being singled out because of the color of his skin, but he advises Littlefield that the problem goes beyond a few troublemakers. News flash to the colonel: Even in the supposedly colorblind world of the military, black soldiers confront racism regularly, including at a nearby housing complex that refuses to rent to them.

Littlefield, who prides himself on his egalitarian outlook, has found his mission. His wife, Margaret (Jordan Baker), however, wishes he'd retire and devote himself to their marriage, which has suffered since their son deserted to Canada to escape the Vietnam War draft. The problem, as she sees it, is that her husband is "looking for a good, clean fight" when life rarely allows for such things.

Chaplain White (Leo Marks), an insecure newcomer to the base and a religious busybody, serves as a catalyst for the plot's inevitable crisis. He discovers that Littlefield has recently had a lapse in personal conduct involving a Marine's wife and indirectly calls on King, who has been promoted to executive officer, to deal with the matter.

The moral balance sheet is dizzying. Littlefield commits an act of adultery while investigating charges of the town's discriminatory housing practices, forcing King, who has received his promotion because of Littlefield, to decide whether to take punitive action and risk his own career (no one likes a snitch) or overlook an ethical breach that has emotionally destroyed a fellow Marine.

And there's plenty more where that comes from. Shanley adds wrinkle after wrinkle. In fact, he seems to care more about juggling the assorted conflicts (no small feat) than about deepening our understanding of the conflicted parties.

The Vietnam War era in which the drama takes place charges the action with a contemporary urgency (underscored with film footage of military activity projected between scenes that inescapably bring to mind Iraq). When is it valid to challenge a commander's authority? This timely question would no doubt be made more involving if the human tale were more finely observed.

The cast, under Andrew J. Robinson's all-too-straightforward direction, tends to accentuate the more schematic facets of their characters. The one exception is Baker, who registers a quiet sense of dissatisfaction as she delivers wise apercus while serving lemonade and coffee in a drab wood-paneled living room that would drive any stay-at-home spouse crazy.

Kilner, Baker's husband on- and offstage, amplifies Littlefield's tyrannical presence to the point that he seems like a lion strutting about in a perfectly pressed uniform. Your spine stiffens when he roars, but the subtler textures of the man get lost in the bluster.

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