Presented by the Village Playhouse
Feb. 29, Mar. 1, 6-8, 8 p.m.
Mar. 3 and 9, 5 p.m.
730 Coleman Blvd., Mt. Pleasant
If there's military in a play, I know what to expect and become disappointed if it's missing. That comes from serving 20 years in the Navy before returning to my love of theater as a professional critic. Even with three consulting marines thanked in the program notes, the Village Playhouse's presentation of John Patrick Shanley's Defiance still has marines who do not fit the part.
The production is engaging and thought-provoking, but fails to reach the level of accomplishment that director Gene Lesser achieved earlier this season in PURE Theatre's Rabbit Hole.
John Stoehr wondered in last week's City Paper preview if maybe Defiance failed in New York because "it wasn't seen by the right people." By that he meant that the show's subject matter — racial strife in 1971 Camp Lejeune, N.C. — would have been better received by an audience composed of southerners familiar with military culture and the pathologies of race.
Stoehr was correct to an extent. Playing to a sold-out house, Lesser's interpretation of Shanley's material did resound with the audience. But some cast members' attempts to strike military poses were misfires — and poor casting of the lead prevented the show from truly standing out.
Defiance is a play requiring a leading man who personifies the military lifer — a self-assured, commanding leader for whom men would follow into combat and die, a man full of an unshakable belief in the rightness of his actions.
Defiance's lead role is Lt. Colonel Littlefield, battalion commander, played by David Reinwald, an excellent Charleston actor with numerous previous roles that were successful. But while Reinwald briefly achieved credibility as a military commander, he was unable to rise to that very high standard for long.
It starts with a lack of a proper military haircut, but more than the missing high-and-tight buzz was a missing air of authority that the role demands. Reinwald appeared stiff throughout the evening, but not militarily stiff, just uncomfortable in his assigned role. This had a negative effect on the entire play as he is in a majority of the scenes. This would not be so distracting were Littlefield meant to be a sub-standard officer, but prior to his downfall in the play he is meant to be the cream of the corps.
In contrast is Michael Burgess as Captain Lee King, a black officer whom Littlefield wishes to use to help deflect racial tensions threatening to tear Camp Lejeune apart. Burgess looked and acted every inch the officer. His uniform was immaculate. His haircut the pride of the corps. Were he to walk onto a military base in uniform soldiers would salute and jump to obey his orders, so convincing was his performance.
Burgess' portrayal of a military officer provided the foundation for his much greater portrayal of a man torn between a desire to melt into the background of the military to escape his skin color and his need to do what's right, even if it means acknowledging what he seeks to avoid.
Shanley's first play in this trilogy, Doubt, won the Pulitzer Prize for its enthralling story of a priest who might be guilty of child abuse. Produced shortly after the scandal that rocked the Catholic Church, it earned rave reviews.
Defiance, the second of the trilogy that follows the theme of abuse of power and failure to abide by the standards of an institution, failed to resonate with New York theater audiences, perhaps lacking that background tension which helped propel its predecessor. Here in Charleston, the issues that Defiance explores, while not as recent as those in Doubt, still echo in our communal memory, and the Playhouse's production is a sound delivery to a receptive audience.