There are at least two men hiding in John Patrick Shanley's 59-year-old corpus: Shanley The Pedant and Shanley The Unsure. The former is a long-winded brat who writes plays such as the unwatchable Dirty Story, which presumed to tell us what, when, and how to think about geopolitics in the Middle East. Maybe it would be interesting to have dinner with Shanley The Pedant, but if you're watching one of the man's plays, you'd best hope it was written by Shanley The Unsure.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Doubt is such a show, and if you missed it in New York or at the Caldwell Theatre in Boca, you've probably at least seen the trailer of the recently released film adaptation (starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep). Defiance, now enjoying its regional premiere at Joe Adler's GableStage, is another. It is newer than Doubt, and less famous, but every bit as powerful.
Defiance is set in 1971 at the vast marine base of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. The base is boiling with violent racial unrest, and Col. Morgan Littlefield (Bill Schwartz), the base commander, is determined to root it out. He is a take-no-shit pragmatist who, we sense, enjoys himself quite a bit — enjoys the company of his wife and the solid military men he likes to befriend, enjoys having the power to get things done, and enjoys the brusqueness afforded him by his post, which he uses to puncture the pretentiousness of his underlings. He shoots straight and talks like John Wayne; offered one too many folksy koans by his loquacious new chaplain during their first informal chat, he drawls, "I hope you're not one of those fellows with a maxim for every occasion." It's difficult to tell how much of Littlefield's gruff affability resides in Schwartz's portrayal or Shanley's script, but at least in this production, it's impossible not to like the guy.
Defiance: By John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Joe Adler. With Ezra Jesse Bookman, Patti Gardner, Reiss Gaspard, Paul Homza, Bill Schwartz, and Paul Tei. Run time: 90 minutes. Through March 22. GableStage at The Biltmore, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables; 305-445-1119, gablestage.com
Impossible for anyone, that is, but Lejeune's new chaplain. Chaplain White (Paul Tei) is a slow talker from Tennessee whose ever-present smile never syncs up with his calculating eyes. He's got it in for Littlefield from their first meeting, and it's hard to say if that's because of Littlefield's crack about maxims or because of the colonel's casual admission of atheism. "You should know," Littlefield says, "I don't believe in much of anything 'cept for my wife's cooking." White would like you to think it's the latter, but you wonder.
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Also in attendance at the chaplain and colonel's first meeting is a handsome young captain named Lee King (Reiss Gaspard). Both Captain King and Chaplain White have been invited to the colonel's home for a bull session on Lejeune's racial problems. The chaplain is there because Colonel Littlefield hopes the problems can be quelled from the pulpit, and Captain King has been called on because he's the only high-ranking black officer on base. King senses this from the onset and is so stiff with suppressed displeasure he looks arthritic. Or maybe he'd look that way anyway. In due course, we learn King's fast rise through the ranks is really a breakneck run from America's racial quagmire: He wants to "disappear" into his uniform as a colorless being in the military meritocracy. As such, he is engaged in a permanent struggle to be less human, to become the perfect, cool-blooded military man, which is precisely what he usually appears to be. Captain King never acknowledges the plain truth: that both pure meritocracy and genuine detachment are chimerical. It's as if he thinks he can summon them into being with a sufficiently straight posture and the perfect trouser crease.
Defiance has a simple structure that belies Shanley's colossal ambitions. The play's action is confined to the unfolding consequences of the initial meeting between Littlefield, White, and King, which are presented in a single, taut act — but within those confines, Defiance digs deep into bottomless issues such as fidelity, piety, authority, secular morality, personal ambition, and greatness. (Just about the only issue not explored is race relations, which serves the same purpose in Defiance as child molestation did in Doubt: as a red herring.) Shanley The Unsure knows he is not wise enough to deliver definitive statements about such issues and, as in Doubt, insists the audience perform its own interrogations. Shanley The Pedant is completely invisible here. In fact, Shanleys of all kinds are invisible in Defiance; apart from one brief, clunky exchange between Captain King and Chaplain White, Defiance doesn't seem "written" at all. In a hundred tiny gestures, Shanley builds characters that have more than individuality or even personality. They have history, lives of their own, seemingly untouched by any author's sensibility or bias. There's a moment when Colonel Littlefield's wife, Margaret (Patti Gardner), brings a pitcher of lemonade into a room where Littlefield, White, and King are standing. Littlefield, who's already had a glass and is preoccupied with other things, half-snaps, "How much lemonade can one man drink?" — not realizing the other men might like some refreshment too. The moment is quick, and Littlefield immediately returns to his brusque and lovable self. But we've seen something: a flash of solipsism that explains, in part, how Littlefield came to be in this place and engaged in this work, and what kinds of trouble he may later get into.
You might sense I'm extolling the virtues of Shanley's script at the expense of GableStage's production. I'm not. The minutiae under discussion would be absent from the show if director Joe Adler hadn't reached deep into his considerable reservoirs of talent and discovered a capacity for shrewdness and subtlety that is too often underutilized in his shows (there are many superlatives one could attach to the average Adler joint, but subtle isn't one). Defiance is a play that explores big concepts in tiny moments and requires extraordinary sympathy from its interpreters to avoid disintegration into a gush of useless words. Without, say, Reiss Gaspard injecting a little pain under the façade of Captain King's propriety, King would be a bit of a twat, and you'd wonder why Shanley decided to write a play about him. As it is, Gaspard and his costars act as organically — as invisibly — as Shanley wrote. Like Shanley, they leave their egos at home and meet us in the theater not to instruct or judge, but to wonder.