The road to moral certitude always leads back to religion, though not without pit stops along the way for political campaigns and military bases. That latter is the setting for John Patrick Shanley’s newest play, which takes place in 1971 at Camp Lejeune, where all racial hell is breaking loose and everyone is sick to death of Vietnam. (Shanley himself was stationed at the North Carolina marine base that year.) The central dilemma, though, is not race, nor even a war the country can no longer support. Shanley works on a more human scale, and the narrative fuel that drives “Defiance” (currently in an excellent Chicago premiere under the direction of Jason Loewith at Next Theatre) is much the same that can be found in “Doubt,” Shanley’s Pulitzer and Tony winner from 2005. The plays are meant as a companion pieces (a third is in the offing), circling around and then pouncing on the theme of authority (moral and otherwise) under siege. Both plays feature characters who firmly believe in the rightness of their purpose, and it is staggering to see how far they will go to prove it. Shanley knows his way around playmaking, and “Defiance” is like a firm handshake and a direct look in the eye. (He gets in more than a few comedic licks, too.) That said, I don’t buy all of the play’s arguments. And the moral infraction of the climax feels trumped up. Ultimately, though, I’m not sure any of that matters. The play is so solidly constructed, the cracks in the foundation are just that—cracks and nothing more. And nothing obscures a script’s flaws better than the kind of performances you see here, especially Steve Pickering’s Lt. Colonel, who tramps around his living room like a man in search of his keys. (The velour chairs and perfectly heinous curtains are courtesy of set designer Keith Pitts.) Any show with Pickering in the cast is worth seeing, and his interactions with Laura T. Fisher (as his Southern-gracious wife, who’s had it with the military) rise to the level of Coach and Mrs. Coach on “Friday Night Lights”—a depiction of marriage that is lived-in, layered and endlessly watchable. (Nina Metz)
At Next Theatre, 927 Noyes, Evanston, (847)475-1875. This production is now closed.