After opening last season with a slick, top-notch drama by John Patrick Shanley, lightning has struck twice at the Detroit Repertory Theatre with yet another, “Defiance.”
The second in a proposed trilogy of “D” titled plays, Shanley tackles similar themes in “Defiance” as he did in “Doubt” – authority and morality – but now it’s a decade later, and this time the powerful institution he’s examining isn’t the church, but the military.
When an unpopular war and the rising Black Power movement clash at Camp Lejeune in 1971, Marine Lt. Col. Morgan Littlefield believes promoting a black officer will help squelch racial problems erupting on his base in North Carolina. Capt. Lee King would rather remain invisible and uninvolved, however, but rank triumphs over all in the military, and he warily accepts the offer to become the colonel’s right hand man. But when an enlisted man comes to King with an accusation that would sink Littlefield’s heretofore blemish-free career, the captain has a difficult choice to make: Will he defy his own personal code of ethics and do what’s right for the young soldier (and probably ruin his own career in the process)? Or will he adhere to the unwritten policy of always backing up a fellow (and superior) officer?
What was most impressive about the opening night performance wasn’t so much the somewhat under-developed plot or the script’s often poetic dialogue, but how Shanley’s work was interpreted by director Bruce E. Millan and his fine regiment of actors and technicians.
Millan’s spit-and-polish staging marches the story forward with near-perfect precision, and his scene changes are quickly and efficiently executed with militaristic flair. And equally well-conceived are Burr Huntington’s sound design and Harry Wetzel’s folding and sliding set.
But it’s the actors who especially command attention – many of whom are new to the Rep’s stage.
Mark Halpin – who lately seems to be making a career out of playing military men – is fully believable as the dour-faced Littlefield. On the tail end of an unremarkable career, Littlefield is looking for one last battle to fight, and Halpin expertly captures the emotional highs and lows the colonel faces as recent decisions come back to haunt him.
His nemesis, Chaplain White, is a smarmy Southern minister with his own axes to grind. Dan Zelazny finds every shade of self-righteousness he can in his character, and has high-holy fun bringing him to life.
His polar opposite is Capt. King, the low-key, tightly-wrapped black officer played by Bernard Owens, a familiar face to Rep audiences. King resents being thrust into more than one uncomfortable position, and Owens has powerful moments with both Halpin and Zelazny.
But the biggest welcome to the Rep stage goes to Sandra Birch, who plays Margaret Littlefield, the colonel’s supportive wife. This long-favorite, award-winning actress is delightful throughout, but the critical scene with Halpin that brings the story to its conclusion proves why Birch is such a treasured jewel of Michigan’s professional theater community.
Detroit Repertory Theatre, 13103 Woodrow Wilson, Detroit. Thu.-Sun., through Dec. 28. Tickets: $17-$20. For information: 313-868-1347 or http://www.detroitreptheatre.com.