Good Citations: The venerable Medal of Honor Rag deserves an oak leaf cluster

Feb 4, 2009 at 4:00 am

In Tom Cole's Medal of Honor Rag, a lot goes down in 65 minutes. One can only imagine how wrenchingly topical this lean account of a therapy session between a psychologically scarred Vietnam vet and his therapist must have been when the script was first staged in April 1975 (the same month that American troops evacuated Saigon). Thirty-four years later, the Vietnam War finally is beginning to recede into the mist of memory, yet Cole's story remains sinewy and immediate. St. Louis Actors' Studio is to be commended, first for resurrecting the little-seen play, and then for presenting it so impressively.

As thoughtfully staged by David Wassilak, nothing is played to the audience; we are eavesdroppers at the goings-on in an impersonal office at an army hospital in Pennsylvania. It's as if we're watching this session through one-way glass. Wassilak wisely keeps movement to a minimum. He uses the office desk as a sort-of no-man's land — or DMZ — to separate the white doctor from his black patient. Patrick Huber's sterile scene design transforms the Studio's confined space into an advantage.

Medal of Honor Rag, which is based on a factual case history, does not preach; this is not polemic theater. The nameless doctor is far too busy trying to gain a foothold with his new patient (Michigan's only Congressional Medal of Honor winner) to ask large questions like: What kind of a government bestows its highest military honor on a soldier who simply went berserk on the battlefield? Is it honorable to elevate a confused killer to the level of hero? Is it moral to shunt that soldier aside after the medal has been bestowed and the photos have been taken?

Bryan Keith portrays the fragmented Dale Jackson with the waning strength of a piece of charred yet magnetized steel. It is an effort for D.J. to even rise from the metal folding chair to which he seems to be attached. But when he recalls his experiences in "The Nam," a kind of firepower allows him to break away, ever so briefly, from the conscience that keeps him inert.

Medal of Honor Rag does not fall into that genre of Equus-like dramas where the doctor's ills are as great as the patient's. This doctor is simply trying to heal. For the first fifteen minutes, Tyler Vickers sits at the desk in profile, as still as if he were a cutout figure. His quietude encourages us to focus on the patient. If Keith is ideally cast as the soldier, Vickers is more of a stretch as a European-born physician. But as he always does, Vickers brings enormous goodwill to his performance. Regardless of whether he's the leading man or buried beneath makeup and wigs in a supporting role, he always gives the impression that he relishes acting and loves to serve the play — which is precisely what he does again here.

The result is a compelling and concentrated evening of theater — albeit one that is marred by one unfortunate misjudgment in the final moment. The omission of a curtain call imposes on the production an inflated sense of "importance" that ignores the very limitations of theater. As David Mamet succinctly suggested, "People have tried for centuries to use drama to change people's lives, to influence, to comment, to express themselves. It doesn't work. It might be nice if it worked for those things, but it doesn't. The only thing the dramatic form is good for is telling a story." It's precisely because plays do not change the world that all these decades and so many wars later Medal of Honor Rag still provides so relevant and involving an experience. Because this is a story told well, at evening's end it would have been nice to let the actors know — to their faces — how effectively powerful they were.

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