In 'Beyond Glory,' Lang lets the powerful speak for themselves

CelebritiesArmed ForcesDefenseStephen LangCongressional Medal of Honor HeroesEntertainmentGaming

"It is not a good story," observes the old soldier with the Medal of Honor, "but I guess that's consistent with war."

Beg to differ, Sir.

As channeled through the formidable actor Stephen Lang, the tales of wartime heroism that led American soldiers of different generations and different wars to rise above and beyond the common call of duty are stories of the very highest theatrical order.

Whatever you think about the merits of particular wars, stories of courage are transcendent. And Lang's assiduously neutral one-man show "Beyond Glory" steps around the innumerable political and ideological minefields that surround most of the conflicts of the latter half of the 20th Century with quite astonishing dexterity.

Those on the right will appreciate this show's sense of dignity and its respect for the warrior, especially the hero who emerges from the rank and file. Those on the left will take comfort in its revelation that few people end up detesting war — all war — as much as veterans. And those in the middle? Lang gives you space to mourn the human cost of an activity that rips fathers away from sons, and yet also seems to bring out the best in so many otherwise ordinary men and women. (The Goodman production is sponsored by the McCormick Tribune Foundation, a separate, non-profit organization, independent from Tribune Co.)

There won't be enough militaristic red meat for the jingoist, nor sufficient depiction of war's horrors and inequities for the pacifist. And this is a relatively sparse and raw production, not some major theatrical event, full of big ideas and broad artistic agendas.

So be it. I found it to be uncommonly honest work.

It helps that "Beyond Glory" is oral history, not sanctioned narrative. Lang — who directs himself — adapted a small part of Larry Smith's book, "Beyond Glory: Medal of Honor Heroes in Their Own Words," a self-explanatory collection of interviews. Because these are first-person tales and the words of men acutely aware of colleagues who did not return to collect any medals, they tend to shrug off pumped-up pomposity. They are mainly uncomfortable in the recounting of their deeds. And in that discomfort lies both the show's message and its appeal.

Listen to the reluctant tale of how Pvt. Hector Cafferata chose to jump out of his trench and swat away a slew of enemy grenades with a shovel — rather than listen to his logically inclined feet and run away — and you cannot help but wonder if you might find the stuff to do the same.

Unlike a lot of venerations of exceptional military service, Lang's show is not about superhumans or soft-gloss reconstructions with an eye toward helping recruiting quotas. In many ways, the message of this show is that you cannot know what you have inside until you are confronted with a need for its employment.

"Words like bravery and courage," observes another of Lang's wise subjects, "are words that come after the fact." In other words, valor tends to be all about an ability (or an inability) to act in the most fleeting of moments. And the line between choice and necessity is much more blurred than many people care to believe.

Lang — a beefy, spike-haired man with a bark — is entirely credible as a solider. He has the nerve to play an African-American with precision — the remarkable Vernon J. Baker, who had to wait some 50 years to get his just deserts. And unlike most self-directed actors, Lang pays unusual attention to sharp, even militaristic transitions. Thankfully, he knows when enough is enough.

"Beyond Glory" has been Lang's dog-and-pony show for some months. The Goodman has souped it up with some projections that don't add very much, because they lack a consistent style. Similarly, the few recorded voices that pop into the show are mainly a weird and inconsistently applied distraction.

All you need here is the actor and the soldiers' stories.

cjones5@tribune.com

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