Volume 18 • Issue 41 | February 24 - March 2, 2006

Theater

DEFIANCE
By John Patrick Shanley
Directed by Doug Hughes
Now in previews toward its February 28 opening
New York City Center Stage 1
131 West 55th St.
(212-581-1212; nycitycenter.org)

Photo by Monique Carboni

Playwright John Patrick Shanley, who gave us “Doubt” and now gives us “Defiance.”

A colonel, a captain, and defiance

By Jerry Tallmer

John Patrick Shanley, born October 13, 1950, in the Bronx, New York, went into the Marine Corps at age 19, toward the beginning of the winding down of the Vietnam War, at what turned out, he says, “to be the nadir of Corps history in race relations, race riots, drug abuse, and court-martial overload.”

All of some of that, or some of all of that, is inherent by compression and extension in his new play, “Defiance,” which is now in previews toward its February 28 opening as a Manhattan Theatre Club presentation at New York City Center’s Stage 1.

He had basic training in South Carolina; served at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina (where the play is set); at Guantanamo Bay; at Panama warfare school, and elsewhere. His brother Tom (John Patrick is the youngest of five Shanley siblings) saw service in Vietnam as a sergeant in the Marine Air Corps; his brother Jim was in the Navy.

“At Lejeune I was in a barracks with 80 bunks, 80 other guys. All those Vietnam veterans. It was like being in Vietnam. It smelled like Vietnam, they all spoke as if they were still in Vietnam. It was a very intense atmosphere, and with the Vietnam War near its end, recruiters were bottom-fishing” to sign up anyone, anyone at all.

There had also just recently been what Shanley characterizes as “major race riots,” leaving racial tension within the Corps “incredibly high, with black Marines who made friends with whites being shunned by other blacks. There were huge overloads of court martials.

“Shortly after I got out, they changed from barracks for 80 to three-to-a-room, like in college dormitories. Today it’s utterly different in the Corps, but [as he was writing ‘Defiance’] I talked with a colonel who said: ‘Yes, absolutely, those were the problems we had to solve.’ ”

All of which, as noted, lies between the terse, hard-hitting lines of a play in which a Colonel Morgan Littlefield (actor Steven Lang) — tough, intelligent, well-educated — stands for no nonsense in race relations within his battalion (“… it matters to me not at all if you’re black, white, blue, or stupid. You are Marines”) but is far less than perfect in personal morality.

For this dereliction, the Colonel is being called to account — in defiance of “the system” and hopes for a career — by his own executive officer, a lowly captain, the no less tough, intelligent, but ethically straight-line Captain Lee King (Chris Chalk), who is black, and whose role model “was shot down in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.”

The fact behind the fiction: John Patrick Shanley at one Marine base had had a young barracks-mate from the deep South who was devastated when “he’d brought his newly wed bride to their enlisted housing in a trailer park,” only to find that “the staff sergeant who had befriended him had gone and fucked her.” The kid came to Shanley “as somebody to talk to. It was awful.”

What happened to the staff sergeant?

“Brought up on charges, and disciplined.”

And yes, high officers do do things like that. “There was a general just last year — wasn’t there? — who had to step down for committing adultery.”

Finally, there’s Captain King. “I’ve known many people with just that kind

of rigor,” Shanley says. Does the name King relate to the dream, the ideal, who was shot down in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968?

“I don’t know. I suppose so. There are lots of different things I do that I don’t know why they happen. I do know there was a definite black-white rift in the U.S. military all over the United States and the world as a result of the assassination of Martin Luther King. All over the world, blacks in the military felt they were dying for nothing.

“Even today, polls show only 8 percent of black troops think we should be there in Iraq. It’s a whole different point of view that has nothing to do with Democrats or Republicans.”

Shanley’s own background is “ridiculously Irish.” The father, Nicholas Shanley, was a meatpacker. Frances Kelly Shanley, mother to those five kids, was a telephone operator. The playwright lost both parents and a sister within a period of 18 months. “A seismic shock.”

He won the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony, the Obie, and most everything else for “Doubt,” the smash hit about a nun and a priest she suspects of pedophilia that’s still running strong at the Walter Kerr, now with Eileen Atkins as Sister Aloysius.

“Doubt” and “Defiance” are the first two legs, Shanley says, of a trilogy “dealing with the specifics of my life story as it overlaps changes in the social fabric of this country.” He went to a school much like the one in “Doubt,” Saint Anthony’s in the Bronx, “when the women [the sisters] were still wearing black habits and had men’s names [like Sister Aloysius] in an era that was coming to an end within three or four years, even though they didn’t know it.”

He sees “Doubt” as a play “set in the country I was born into as a child, when people still had enormous faith in this country. The next step after that is defiance — the adolescence of this country.”

What will the third leg of the trilogy be? Hanley isn’t saying, if in fact he yet knows. (“There are lots of different things I do that I don’t know why they happen.”) But if (c) follows (b) follows (a), it will be a tough, terse drama about America grown up.


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