A Play in Search of a Playhouse: Maybe great stories need to be told in the right place to be great

Opens Fri. Feb. 22, 8 p.m.
Through March 8
The Village Playhouse
730 Coleman Blvd., Mt. Pleasant
(843) 856-1579

After its 2005 premiere in New York City, John Patrick Shanley's Doubt — the first of a trilogy of plays focusing on American institutions, authority, and moral crisis — was called a perfect model of dramatic economy.

In about 90 minutes, it told the story of a righteous nun teaching at a Bronx Catholic school who embarks on a crusade to oust a priest whom she suspects of immoral, and perhaps illegal, behavior with a student.

The play won the Pulitzer Prize that year as well as a handful of Tony Awards, no doubt in part because it tapped into the Northeast's lingering anxiety over the ongoing sexual abuse scandals among priests in the Catholic Church.

A year later, however, Shanley's second play, Defiance — focusing this time on the U.S. Marine Corps — received lukewarm praise. Ben Brantley, the chief theater critic for The New Yort Times, called it "overcrowded and oddly diffuse."

Set in Camp Lejeune, N.C., in 1971 during the Vietnam War and after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the play throbs with the spasms of racial violence that seized headlines during that era.

In the story, a white colonel cynically promotes a black officer to the rank of captain in order to quell rebellion among black marines, deflect blame, and reaffirm authority. Meanwhile, a Cassandra-like chaplain attempts to re-instill the holy spirit using means that most would deem unworthy a man of God.

Seems on par with Doubt, right? Well ...

"If Doubt has an elegant and energy-efficient sprinter's gait, Defiance progresses with a limp and a flustered air of distraction," Brantley wrote.

His critique wasn't unique.

Other critics were similarly disappointed. While many have since noted that comparing the plays is unfair, Shanley does in fact invite such juxtaposition: They are part of a trilogy, they address gigantic institutions rotting from within, and they feature figures animated by religious fervor to make the world anew.

So why did Doubt succeed while Defiance failed?

Lost in Translation

Perhaps it wasn't seen by the right people.

That's what David Reinwald thinks. As managing director of the Village Playhouse and a leading actor in the company's three-week run of Defiance, which opens Friday, Reinwald is certain the play will resonate deeply in the Lowcountry.

"It will strike a chord, because of our racial issues, our proximity to Camp Lejeune, and the chaplain's being a true Southern evangelical," Reinwald says. "Audiences will bring a kind of conflicted sympathy to his character that's hardly possible in New York."

Reinwald, who plays Col. Littlefield, the cynical and careerist commander of Camp Lejeune, and his wife, Keely Enright, producing artistic director of the Playhouse, saw Defiance performed in Pasadena, Calif., last year.

Right away they knew: It was time to bring Defiance home.

"Everyone I've talked to about it has told me they know someone who served at Camp Lejeune," Enright says. "That's how important the story will be."

Indeed, theater is a two-way street. An audience brings as much to the storytelling as the storytellers bring to the audience.

When I was in Los Angeles this time last year, I saw a reinterpretation of August Strindberg's 19th-century classic, Miss Julie, a story about a valet named Jean falling in love with his master's daughter. While the original version was a classic kitchen-sink drama concerned with a Victorian theme, socio-economic class, this retelling focused on a timeless American theme.

Namely, race.

The retelling was set in Mississippi in 1964 during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. Jean, now John, is a black chauffeur and Julie is his white boss's daughter. The shift revealed a relationship based on more than just sex and power. It was a story about American history, racism, and the imminent danger of white violence.

Watching the play, I had the feeling that the audience, largely white and evidently well-heeled, was unaware of how much subtext — pride, shame, loss — was embedded in scenes like those in which Julie attempts sexually to dominate John— "Kiss my shoe," she commands, breathlessly, at one point — and in which John recognizes that if he kisses her shoe, and plays along with her fatalist games of manipulation, he has an opportunity to symbolically stick it to the white power structure.

A largely homogeneous and affluent audience couldn't be expected to know this. In any event, reviews were bad.

"Strindberg's delicate characterization, particularly in the servant John, is lost by the change," a CurtainUp review said. "The result is a powerful and interesting curiosity that leaves one longing to see a brilliant production of the original."

Indeed, much of this was fair criticism. But I also felt, given the tony SoCal context, that something was lost in translation.

An Invisible Man

Perhaps Defiance suffered from the same phenomena, says Gene Lesser, director of the Village Playhouse production.

A native New Yorker who taught acting classes for years at the Juilliard School, Lesser, who now lives in Charleston, says Doubt and Defiance are both good (he likes the latter more), but perhaps a story about a pederastic priest resonated more with New Yorkers, because New York is, like much of the Northeast, deeply steeped in Catholic history and heritage.

Conversely, Lesser says, asking New Yorkers to appreciate Defiance's subtext might have been too much to expect. New York doesn't have a history of race-based discrimination, religious fervor, and unreconstructed patriotism (or martialism) that the South has.

"In New York, going to church means going to some kind of super-intellectual super-church where you don't really have to feel guilty about anything," Lesser says. "Here, going to church is serious and traditional. There's not as much doubt or skepticism or self-consciousness about faith. But at the same time, there's a lot of stuff from the past still simmering under the surface."

Perhaps no one in the Playhouse production knows this better than Michael Burgess.

A native of Myrtle Beach and veteran actor with credits in Forrest Gump, In the Heat of the Night, and Fried Green Tomatoes, Burgess plays the principal black character, Capt. King, an existentially troubled figure who ironically desires being "invisible."

In a recent interview, Burgess notes that his two brothers were stationed at Camp Lejeune. He also believes a Southern audience will finally validate Defiance.

"There will be a kinship with the play," he says. "Religion is a natural part of the wonderfully complex history of race, class, and the way of life in the South. This play will spark deep, intimate, and familiar feelings that are not just black and white.

"You'll see the humanity of the characters and see how that humanity is part of their downfall. Each character's humanity gets in the way of what he or she truly wants. The play speaks to the ambiguity of our heritage and to what's truly right."



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