When Is a War Hero Not a War Hero? (Play Review)

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, American Hero

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

Rob Wellman has won the Congressional Medal of Honor. He won it for saving the lives of several men in a fierce battle in Iraq. Rob was wounded in the action and gets around in a wheel chair. He runs a successful business and lives with his proud daughter, Shaun, who wants to be in the military herself and has applied to the U.S. Air Force Academy. The only step left in the awarding of the Medal of Honor is some paperwork and then the presentation at the White House by the President. Wherever Rob goes, he is treated like a national icon and, although paralyzed from the waist down, he is proud of himself.

Should he be? One night his old friend Mary, a rough and ready black lesbian soldier, who helped save his life in Iraq when he was wounded, arrives unannounced at his house and spends most of the night talking about the good old days of the war. Life has not been very good to her since she came back from Iraq. Her girlfriend left her, she does not have a good job in the army and it seems that while war buddy Rob is American royalty, she is not. Mary, the black woman, was a hero, too, wasn’t she?

She has to hide somewhere in the home while various army commanders arrive to congratulate Rob and go over his heroic rescue time and again. The play runs along nicely, just like an old John Wayne war movie.

And then, about two thirds of the way through the drama, Mary. in her fatigues, jumps at Rob, points a finger at him, and tells him that she is AWOL and that the MPs in the army are looking for her all over the countryside. They wanted to arrest her for a despicable thing she did in the army.

It turns out that the despicable thing was done with Rob on the night he rescued his comrades and won the medal.

American Hero, that opened Friday at the George Street Playhouse, College Farm Rd., in New Brunswick. N.J., is just blistering. It shakes you to your core. It is one of the best plays or movies about war that I have ever seen. It not only brings the “American hero” to life in a vivid, dramatic way, but calls into question the bravery of him or her as a Medal of Honor winner and suggests, in a quiet way, that perhaps other Medal of Honor winners did dreadful things, too. We value the Medal of Honor so much, brilliant playwright Christopher Demos-Brown says, that perhaps we forgive those who won it for other things that they did, or that perhaps the brave narrative of the medal tale, for the Iraqi or any other war in our history, was not quite truthful.

Demos-Brown is the author of American Son, a huge hit at George Street last season, that is now headed for Broadway. He has a keen sense of morality and his play is drenched in immorality. What can Rob do? Does he admit, as Mary begs him, to tell the story if the illegal and downright disgraceful thing they did that night, and perhaps save her? But in admitting his actions to save his friend will he jeopardize the Medal he is about to receive? What does he give up? What do we all give up when it comes to glory or our friends?

The actors in play are memorable. Armand Schultz is powerful as Rob, a totaling charming man that everybody not only admires, but feels sorry for. John Bolger is fine in a number of military roles, as is Kelly Duling as daughter Shaun. Laiona Michelle, as soldier Mary, steals the show, though. She is a titan as she charges across the stage or cries on the couch or rages at the high ceiling. She is every heroic woman soldier hailed and every woman solder betrayed at the same time. Michelle’s Mary is an overwhelming presence on stage, cajoling and then weeping and begging her old war buddy to do the right thing and vouch for her even if it ruins him.

Director David Saint has created a truly majestic play with American Hero. He not only gets his actors to milk their characters, but to smash them up with Demos-Brown’s literary hammer.

Demos-Brown savages the veneration we have for some medal winners, but does not disparage medals themselves. Most of the people that win them are heroes but, Demo-Brown suggests, some are not. And then there are ‘heroes’ like Rob Wellman, who stumble and bumble into situations that do not go their way but situations in which, due to circumstances, they wind up heroes anyway, through little effort of their own.

Who are war heroes, anyway? Are they the rough, tough GIs firing away with the machine gun? Medics racing back and forth on the battlefield to save lives? Nurses with blood transfusions? The jeep drivers, men and women, who tear through downtown streets under fire? The stoic men and women of Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, pick a country, who hold their families together under fire?

They should all get medals.

See American Hero. It will make your soul shudder.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the George Street Playhouse. Sets: Jason Simms, Costumes: David Murin, Lighting: Christopher J. Bailey, Sound: Scott Killian, Fight Direction; Rick Sordelet. The play id directed by David Saint. It runs through February 25.

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