Review: ‘Defiance’ explores many issues
REVIEW BY JOHN BERGER / email@example.com
In 1948 President Truman ordered the U.S. Armed Forces to end their long-standing policy of keeping African-Americans in racially segregated units. Service members were to integrate “as rapidly as possible” and with no excuses or bureaucratic foot-dragging accepted.
Change took time — the Secretary of the Army was dismissed for disobeying the President’s order — but eventually the military was integrated. Making integration work took longer.
Presented by The Actors’ Group
» Where: The Brad Powell Theatre, 650 Iwilei Rd.
The political and social issues that divided Americans in the 1960s rippled through the military as well. The Vietnam War required a draft which forced men to fight a war many of them did not support. Racial conflicts between blacks and whites, lifestyle conflicts between draftees and lifers, the easy availability of marijuana and heroin in Vietnam and mounting questions about the validity of the war itself brought morale in many units to a low ebb.
The Actors’ Group (TAG) takes a look at the issues of that not-so-long-ago era with its Hawaii premiere production of playwright John Patrick Shanley’s military drama, “Defiance.” The story takes place on a Marine base in 1971, but the core issues are timeless.
Lieutenant Colonel Morgan Littlefield, a well-meaning Marine officer and decorated combat veteran, is nearing the end of his career. Littlefield wants to reduce the racial conflicts and rampant drug use in his command but isn’t sure how to do it — so he calls a young African-American officer in for conference.
Captain Lee King is also a decorated combat veteran, but so disenchanted with America that he isn’t interested doing any more than is required in the line of duty. King definitely does not want to be used as a token or a “first,” or as spokesperson for all black Marines (“I don’t want to be the ombudsman for black Marines”).
Both officers ruffle the feathers of a slovenly chaplain, new to the base, whose cheerful self-righteousness borders on malevolence. Littlefield brusquely tells the chaplain that the content of his sermons is inappropriate — “You don’t talk that way to these men!” — no ifs, ands or buts. King brushes off the chaplain’s suggestion that he should become a churchgoer.
Greg Hunt (Captain King) and Tim Jeffryes (Lieutenant Colonel Littlefield) lead a strong cast with brilliant performances.
Jeffryes brings Littlefield into focus as a complex multifaceted man; a career soldier who came up through the ranks, fought in Korea and Vietnam but feels his career is incomplete. One more accomplishment, maybe defusing the racial conflicts in his command, maybe something else, will fill that void. Littlefield would also like to retire as a “bird colonel,” a step above his current rank, and is working to win the favor of his superiors.
To his credit, Littlefield is also a man of action. When King reveals a particular example of racial discrimination against African-American marines outside the base Littlefield takes immediate action to end it.
Jeffreys is instantly convincing as a no-nonsense officer who feels out of his depth dealing with the concerns of his black Marines. Jeffreys then reveals a distinctly different side of the man in the scenes where Littlefield is with his wife, Margaret. The bluster and self-confidence dissipates to a point where Littlefield seems almost childlike and emotionally dependent.
Margaret, played with equal parts a sharp tongue and maternal world-weariness by Rebecca Lea McCarthy, is done with being an officer’s wife. She would rather her husband retire at his current rank than stay on to become a full colonel, and looks forward to the days when they retire in Colorado and can climb every mountain.
Littlefield and his wife are also divided by his decision to cut all ties with their son who has gone to Canada to avoid the draft.
Hunt is a commanding presence in every scene. Accept the premise that a picture is worth 1,000 words and Hunt’s expressive eyes are worth at least 1,000 pictures in moving this story forward. Hunt has some of the best dialogue in a well-written show, but no words are needed to convey the wide range of emotions Captain King is experiencing as he deals with the demands and expectations of Littlefield and the chaplain.
Brian Gibson (Chaplain White) is also memorable in a pivotal role. In physical terms, Gibson is a remarkable clone of Tim Conway’s iconic Ensign Parker, the bumbling junior officer in “McHale’s Navy.” That initial impression proves false. The chaplain is anything but a bumbling junior officer and Gibson skillfully reveals glimpses of predator lurking behind the big belly and wide smile.
“He wants your ass, my soul and the keys to the car,” King warns Littlefield as Gibson ratchets up the pressure on both of them.
These fascinating and well-written characters are certainly worth a sequel set, say, just after Operation Desert Storm in 1991 or immediately after America’s ill-conceived invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Director Peggy Anne Siegmund also makes good casting choices with Scott M. Schewe, Thomas Smith and Rick Crowell in secondary roles. Smith stands out in his one scene as a Marine private whose personal problems become the catalyst for the challenges that Littlefield and King must face.
“Defiance” turns out to be about much more than race. Many of the issues that percolate through it could just as easily take place in a corporate or academic setting circa 2014. In general terms, “Defiance” is a fine example of TAG doing what TAG does best — performing challenging, thought-provoking contemporary theater.
“Defiance” deserves sold out audiences.
John Berger has been a mainstay in the local entertainment scene for more than 40 years. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.