‘Defiance,” the second play in John Patrick Shanley’s as yet uncompleted trilogy, is on stage through Sunday, April 12, at Bristol Riverside Theater. Like the first play in the trilogy, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award- winning “Doubt,” which grew out of Shanley’s childhood misadventures in Catholic schools, “Defiance” also draws from Shanley’s own experience, this time his service in the U.S. Marine Corps. “Defiance” takes place at the corp’s Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where Shanley himself had served. The time is 1971, and morale at the camp is very low, a result of heightened racial tensions and the effects of the Vietnam War.
At the center of “Defiance” is the interaction between the camp commander, Lieutenant Colonel Morgan Littlefield, and a black officer who has risen through the ranks, Captain Lee King. Littlefield is close to retirement age and is hoping to end his career on a high note. He wants to do something to ease the rampant racial tensions and improve discipline and morale. His plan is to set King up as a symbol and use him as part of his efforts to eliminate the festering racial problems. King, although he has a strong moral sense and is definitely disturbed by conditions at the base, does not want to be a symbol of anything — he wants only to do his job and be left alone.
Muddying the water further is Chaplain White, new to the camp and anxious to make his mark. He speaks only in platitudes and interferes in a manner many, both off stage and on, will find obnoxious. The rest of the cast includes Littlefield’s wife, who remains remarkably sane in this strange world where rank trumps ethics and common sense, and two characters who make only brief appearances: a gunney sergeant who opens the play with a tricky bit of theater, and a young private important to the plot.
Taking the role of Colonel Littlefield is Keith Baker, Bristol Riverside’s artistic director. As BRT audiences have come to expect, he is impressive on stage, convincingly portraying an able man who throws his career away, apparently assuming that as the man in charge he could work out a way to make his slip not matter. Lindsay Smiling is Captain King. His ability to convince us that he is a highly competent man, one proud of his success, who at the same time does his best to stay out of the limelight, is impressive. Smiling has appeared in some of Philadelphia’s most highly regarded theaters, including Walnut Street, the Wilma, and the Lantern.
Clayton Dean Smith is Chaplain White, and he is certainly successful at making the audience sympathize with the other characters. Barbara McCulloh, who plays Littlefield’s wife, has a long history with Bristol Riverside — in fact she met her husband on BRT’s stage — and shines in a role that cannot be easy. Two non-equity actors make up the rest of the cast. Gene d’Alessandro is the gunney sergeant who opens the play by shouting orders to the platoon to get the men to stand in proper order for the arrival of the colonel. He shouts out at the audience, but manages to convince us that the marines are somehow there too. Private First Class Evan Davis is played by Michael Brinkman, a recent graduate of Temple University’s theater department. He is not on stage much longer than the gunney sergeant, but in his short time he has the important job of showing the audience the crushing emotional effect of the mishap that befell him.
“Defiance” is directed by Susan D. Atkinson, Bristol Riverside’s founding producing director. She has certainly succeeded in keeping the action clear and making sure that Shanley’s thought-provoking ideas and wonderful language get through to the audience. The sets are by Nels Anderson, who has designed sets for more than 30 productions at Bristol Riverside. Since “Defiance” is a 90-minute play with no intermission, but with seven scenes, only two of which take place in the same location, Anderson’s challenge is to suggest a variety of places without any seriously time-consuming scenery changes. What he has done works very well. His plans are supported by the lighting designer, Charles S. Reese, another BRT veteran. The costumes were designed by Linda Bee Stockton, who was also faced with an unusual task: most of the characters are in uniform most of the time. Littlefield’s wife is of course in civilian clothes, and Littlefield, King, and the chaplain do occasionally appear out of uniform, in sweats and military dress clothes and religious garb.
Shanley may make his audiences laugh, but he is a serious writer, and he clearly wants the audience to pay attention to the issues he is dealing with. He has said in press interviews that although doubt is “a hallmark of wisdom,” defiance is different. Someone “who remains indefinitely in a posture of defiance lives a perpetual adolescence.” But Shanley does not preach; he makes his points through the characters’ actions and through wonderful language, language that can be clearly heard at Bristol Riverside’s excellent production. While we’re waiting for the third part of Shanley’s trilogy, here is a wonderful opportunity to see the second installment.
“Defiance,” Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol. Through Sunday, April 12. John Patrick Shanley’s drama focuses on race relations, honor, and morality. $29 to $37. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.