"Medal of Honor Rag"
Stamford Theatre Works, Stamford
"Medal of Honor Rag," this season's opener for Stamford Theatre Works, is an intense, focused drama which deals with the effects of combat on its soldiers.
This is of course fertile and familiar terrain, particularly in this format. A Viet Nam vet, a patient in an army hospital, is undergoing psychiatric treatment. One expects the patient to be at first resistant to the doctor, and then to cooperate. One expects him to gradually relive crucial events in his combat years, and in one dramatic moment, achieve recovery. It inevitably happens in most plays of this ilk.
But "Medal" is unique. Playwright Tom Cole does not take the easy, predictable path, but offers an unexpected twist in resolving the plot. There are no cheap shots. For this reason, and because of the powerful performance of Samuel Ray Gates, who plays the soldier, the play is deeply moving.
Cole's drama acquires its strength from its simple, direct style, under the unerring direction of Patricia R. Floyd. It is a one-act, non-stop, two-man tale, with a third actor, the guard, appearing only sporadically. Even Richard Ellis' no-nonsense set (an office with a shabby desk and folding chairs) is devoid of window dressing and offers no distractions.
Gates explores the complex facets of Dale Jackson (D.J., as he is called), moving from the wise-guy cynic, who covers rather than reveals truths, to the broken man in deep pain. Providing an excellent contrast is Ian Blackman as the doctor, who paints his own character in muted tones. It is only when the soldier taunts the doctor, insisting that he, the doctor, cannot understand his problems, does the doctor reveal his own parallel background. The doctor is a survivor of the Holocaust. He, too, suffered crippling guilt, when all around him perished and he alone survived.
Thus, on a new level with his doctor, does he begin to explore his time in Viet Nam. A handsome young black man from Detroit who has been raised by his mother to reject violence, he immediately encounters senseless brutality on arriving at the war zone. He watches his fellow soldiers fire on Vietnamese youngsters in a moment of pique, emptying rounds of bullets into their small bodies. Later, he miraculously survives death when a gun misfires. And after madly killing enemy soldiers (in a scene he has difficulty remembering), he earns himself a Congressional Medal of Honor for "conspicuous gallantry above and beyond the call of duty."
Thus all is explored in these doctor/patient
sessions. But what is the ultimate fate of D.J.? One must see the play
to make that discovery.
If there is any criticism to be made of this fine piece, it is Floyd's use of television at the play's opening, subjecting the viewer to a full rerun of presidential speeches about Viet Nam. One hardly needs to have these reminders pounded home.
"Medal of Honor Rag" is based on the true story of Dwight "Skip" Johnson, which was written in 1975. But that story, and the current play, is shockingly relevant today, as war continues to play its part in our times, as in every era of history.
-- Irene Backalenick
Sept. 22, 2004