SUMMIT, NJ – Playwright John Patrick Shanley is no slouch when it comes to probing, high-powered explorations of the human condition, such as his award winning “Doubt,” both on stage and screen. “Defiance” is no exception in this moving, emotional story at The Summit Playhouse.
The action takes place at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina in 1971, when the Vietnam War is still raging. We first see Gunney Sergeant, played by Peter Horn, at attention on the stage. If you didn’t see him walk out, you would swear he was a statue of a marine. But when he speaks or shouts, it’s all business as he tells recruits exactly what he thinks of them.
He’s soon met by Lt. Colonel Littlefield, played by Frank Blauer, who has his own take on expectations and following orders. In the background are marines singing marching songs, effectively transitioning the action from place to place. Blauer clearly conveys both the rigidity and all-too-human foibles as the play moves on.
Kathleen Campbell, the only woman in the cast, is Littlefield’s long suffering wife, but says exactly what she thinks. You can see there has been tension in their relationship, especially regarding their son, who refused to fight and left for Canada instead.
Littlefield has invited Captain Lee King to his home on a Sunday afternoon, where they’re also met by Chaplin White. Donald Chartruce Calliste is superb as the captain, who has his own conflicts as a black man in the service, not to mention the prejudice encountered in housing in North Carolina. According to program notes, Calliste is a US Army veteran, and you can see by his precise posture and demeanor that he knows the military world. Dale Monroe is the Chaplin from Alabama and his cloying accent and manner define him as a cliché happy hypocrite.
Later in the play, PFC Evan Davis, performed by BK Dawson, approaches Captain King about fighting in Vietnam. It turns out there was an affair between Davis’s wife and a high ranking officer. This brings up issues of morale and morality, as a number of problems surface. Careers are at stake as the intensity increases.
“Defiance” is directed by Frank Licato, who has selected a strong cast to bring out the conflicts and loss of idealism among the various characters. There’s also some reflection on the futility of the Vietnam War and perhaps the Korean War before that.
All the elements are smoothly integrated in this production. Beverly Wand’s costume design clearly reflects the 1960s, especially for Margaret’s gown and dresses. The military garb is also on target. Sean Puzzo’s set design provides a fluid shift from a living room to a party setting to an office. We can simply imagine the military training ground, thanks to sound effects. Lighting and sound by Wendy Roome add to the changing scenes and military demands.
“Defiance” is a play well worth exploring. It continues at The Summit Playhouse, 10 New England Ave. in Summit through March 11. For tickets, call 908-237-2192 or visit SummitPlayhouse.org.