Despite its talk of amputation, imprisonment and torture, “Beyond Glory” is an uplifting play. Adapted from Larry Smith’s book, which collects interviews with two dozen recipients of the Medal of Honor, the solo show lets writer-performer Stephen Lang depict eight decorated veterans, each recalling how he earned his medal. Like Robert Falls’ production for Roundabout, the stories are unsentimental and largely apolitical, meaning they are not manipulated by propaganda or agenda. Instead, they invite auds to celebrate average people doing extraordinary things and remind us that the horrors of war also create moments of heroism.
The show — which has toured not only to Chicago’s Goodman Theater, but also to military bases, aircraft carriers and the Senate floor — allows its characters to tell their stories. Lang and director Falls resist attaching an overarching interpretation to the script’s eight lengthy monologues. Instead, they focus on giving each man’s history the right tone to maintain authenticity.
It helps that Lang makes a believable soldier. With his graying hair buzzed into a military crew cut and his bulked-up arms looking fresh from the weight room, he’s the archetypal bad-ass. For much of the show, Falls has him stand stock-still, feet planted wide apart and arms moving only when necessary. Giving authority to his perf, Lang’s stance announces he’s less interested in showy theatrics than in conveying the truth about the men he portrays.
But along with his machismo, Lang gives each soldier — repping a variety of ethnicities, wars and branches of service –distinct traits. As deceased former Senator James Stockdale, the thesp’s face crumples into weariness as he describes being tortured in a Vietnamese prison. The exhaustion depicts bravery as an act of necessity rather than choice. Moments later, Lang becomes a boisterous Southern army sergeant, happily cracking jokes as he talks about surviving.
Creatives help the show maintain a matter-of-fact energy that keeps it from turning sentimental. Costume changes usually involve a single item — glasses, a jacket — being pulled from an onstage trunk, and John Boesche’s projections of images like rice paddies and documents enhance the stories without overwhelming them.
Only the opening moments are unclear. The tale of Navy Lt. John William Finn, who survived Pearl Harbor, gets continually interrupted by a voiceover reading the official language of a Medal of Honor citation. This conceit –used throughout the show — creates confusion by arriving before the aud knows who Finn is; it plays like the vestige of some earlier script draft.
But awkward beginnings aside, “Beyond Glory” is well-crafted. And while Lang’s perf is an asset, unlike more personal solo shows, there’s no reason these monologues couldn’t work with another thesp. Regional theaters seeking a show that can handle anywhere from one to eight actors may warm to this portrait of valor that doesn’t turn war into a blue state-red state debate.