Buffalo Theatre Ensemble delivers a strong and timely take on 'Defiance'

  • Capt. Lee King (David Goodloe) shares his reluctance to accept a promotion from Lt. Col. Littlefield (Bryan Burke) in Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's production of John Patrick Shanley's "Defiance" at the McAninch Arts Center in Glen Ellyn.

    Capt. Lee King (David Goodloe) shares his reluctance to accept a promotion from Lt. Col. Littlefield (Bryan Burke) in Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's production of John Patrick Shanley's "Defiance" at the McAninch Arts Center in Glen Ellyn. Courtesy of Rex Howard Photography/Buffalo Theatre Ensemble

 
 

"Defiance" -- ★ ★ ★

A military leadership crisis is at the crux of "Defiance," now on stage in Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's timely and riveting production of John Patrick Shanley's 2006 off-Broadway drama at College of DuPage's McAninch Arts Center in Glen Ellyn.

But a minor qualm pops up about the play's name. Several of Shanley's characters do display flashes of defiance in this Vietnam War-era drama set at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune.

But you can make the case that "Dilemma" would have been a more appropriate title -- especially when a late-in-the-play revelation by Pvt. Evan Davis (a distraught Harrison Weger) takes on weighty biblical implications of "right" vs. "wrong."

Tensions are already high when "Defiance" begins, especially with the Gunnery Sergeant (a fire-and-brimstone Nick DuFloth) barking at the audience as if they were the sloppy and disrespectful formation troops he's dressing down. Lt. Col. Littlefield (Bryan Burke) is dismayed when he arrives on the scene, so he decides that it is his duty to improve troop morale.

Lt. Col. Littlefield (Bryan Burke), third from left, leads an uncomfortable meeting with Chaplin White (Robert Jordan Bailey), Margaret Littlefield (Laura Leonardo Ownby) and Capt. Lee King (David Goodloe) in Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's production of "Defiance."
Lt. Col. Littlefield (Bryan Burke), third from left, leads an uncomfortable meeting with Chaplin White (Robert Jordan Bailey), Margaret Littlefield (Laura Leonardo Ownby) and Capt. Lee King (David Goodloe) in Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's production of "Defiance." - Courtesy of Rex Howard Photography/Buffalo Theatre Ensemble
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Littlefield and his wife, Margaret (Laura Leonardo Ownby), invite Capt. Lee King (David Goodloe) and the camp's new Lutheran Chaplin White (Robert Jordan Bailey) into their home to talk over the camp's problems. Both the Littlefields take to King's curt explanations behind the base's racial tensions and morale issues, much to the dismay of White, who is stung by the dismissal of his views.

Littlefield decides to champion and promote King, but the African-American captain resists being singled out. King expresses his concerns about tokenism and being turned into a progressive symbol, but Littlefield refuses to be swayed.

"Defiance" bides its time before detonating its main dramatic bombshell. But this technique by Shanley allows the audience to get close to his characters, which makes the leadership transgression all the more upsetting and conflicting when exposed.

"Defiance" director Kurt Naebig works well with a very personable cast. They each get to the root of what makes their characters tick, so you can feel their passion and anger when they get pushed to the edge.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Capt. Lee King (David Goodloe), seated, warily listens to questions from Chaplin White (Robert Jordan Bailey) in Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's production of John Patrick Shanley's "Defiance" at the McAninch Arts Center in Glen Ellyn.
Capt. Lee King (David Goodloe), seated, warily listens to questions from Chaplin White (Robert Jordan Bailey) in Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's production of John Patrick Shanley's "Defiance" at the McAninch Arts Center in Glen Ellyn. - Courtesy of Rex Howard Photography/Buffalo Theatre Ensemble

David Goodloe is a standout as King, a pessimistic soldier who tries not to draw much attention to himself but still exudes a likable magnetism. Goodloe plays well off Burke's ambitious Littlefield, a man looking to use his position to leave a legacy (despite the many disappointments in his life).

As Margaret, Ownby brings a solid and practical Southern charm as a military wife who puts her husband's career ahead of her own goals in life. As Chaplin White, Bailey shows how his "man of God" is all too worldly -- especially when it comes to biases and resentments of the era.

Director Naebig keeps the play's 90-minute pace snapping along. He's greatly aided by the multilevel locations created by set designer Michale W. Moon and the sharp focus of lighting designer Rachel K. Levy. Christopher Kriz's original music and sound design also firmly root "Defiance" in its 1971 setting.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
The Gunnery Sergeant (Nick DuFloth) barks orders in Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's production of "Defiance."
The Gunnery Sergeant (Nick DuFloth) barks orders in Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's production of "Defiance." - Courtesy of Rex Howard Photography/Buffalo Theatre Ensemble

Shanley's "Defiance" was the second entry of his "Church and State" trilogy to explore American institutions of power. It followed Shanley's Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning Catholic Church drama "Doubt" (2004), and preceded "Storefront Church" (2012), which took on America's banking industries.

When "Defiance" debuted, critics faulted it for not matching the tightly wound dramatic complexity and ambiguity of "Doubt." But as seen in our current political age, "Defiance" makes a refreshing case that leaders need to be held to a higher moral standard.

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Location: Buffalo Theatre Ensemble at College of DuPage's McAninch Arts Center, 425 Fawell Blvd., Glen Ellyn, (630) 942-4000 or atthemac.org

Showtimes: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday; through March 3

Running time: About 90 minutes with no intermission

Tickets: $40

Parking: Adjacent free lot

Rating: Some profanity and adult themes

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