A Soldier’s Story | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

A Soldier’s Story 

Medal of Honor Rag brings a Vietnam veteran’s pain up close and personal.

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The set was nothing more than a table and two chairs. The lighting design consisted of one portable three-bulb rig. A small cassette tape player required for one scene malfunctioned. The stage was the lobby of a Presbyterian church'at least for opening night. Tomorrow, it would be somewhere else, and the next night, somewhere else again.


People Productions'Utah’s African-American themed theater company'doesn’t have the luxury of presenting productions that can dazzle you with their technical prowess, not when they have no permanent home. So when they produce a show like Medal of Honor Rag, stripped down to the confrontation between two men in whatever room is available on a given evening, it has to work on a fundamentally human level. And, surprisingly often, it does.


The setting is the Valley Forge, Penn., Army hospital in April 1971, where Vietnam veteran and congressional Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Dale “D.J.” Jackson (Frederick Jackson) has voluntarily committed himself. Plagued my stomach pains and nightmares, Jackson needs help, but a series of psychiatrists hasn’t accomplished much. The latest doctor (Richard Scharine) initially seems to be running into a similar brick wall, until he begins digging into D.J.’s feelings about having made it home alive when so many other men didn’t.


As directed by Robin Ljungberg from Tom Cole’s script, Medal of Honor Rag comes down almost entirely to “Doc’s” attempts to uncover the demons plaguing D.J. The dialogue exchanges initially feel stilted, and the dynamic of closed-off patient gradually exposing his ravaged soul to a sympathetic listener has an overly familiar ring from movies and plays like Ordinary People, The Prince of Tides or Agnes of God. Even the plight of the protagonist, sadly, seems like something we’ve seen plenty of times before. How will this story of a troubled Vietnam vet differ from so many other stories of troubled Vietnam vets?


But Medal of Honor Rag, like the doctor’s line of questioning, gradually starts to insinuate itself past your defenses. The awkward conversations begin to feel natural for the situation at hand, as actors Jackson and Scharine build the intensity of their interactions. The doctor’s own history'he too knows what it is to feel survival guilt'plays an increasingly significant part in his interest in D.J.’s case. And there’s a keen insight into the psychology of a man who finds himself honored for turning into a killer, a self he no longer even recognizes.


The fact is that Cole’s script ultimately isn’t a whole lot more perceptive than many other tales built around traumatized veterans. Depressing though it may be, audiences have grown anesthetized to soldiers changed forever by the atrocities that they witness, or that they themselves are forced by circumstance to commit. Vietnam forever killed the heroic war narrative; what remains are merely variations on the same tragic theme.


What makes this variation compelling, ultimately, is the theatrical context. Because of the intimacy of the setting, there’s no emotional insulation between D.J. and the few audience members sprinkled among the seats. Frederick Jackson stands a few feet from you, the pain in his voice so close, it feels as though you may be his confessor. You may have heard these horrible war stories before, but maybe you haven’t felt as though that story was being shared only with you.


The production’s program, perhaps predictably, mentions the current war in Iraq, attempting to create an additional layer of contemporary significance as we anticipate other men coming back to America with post-traumatic stress. But People Productions’ efforts here work best not when they’re most universal, but when they’re most personal. A vagabond production may be a logistical frustration, but when it helps a viewer feel more connected to the characters, it might have its advantages as well.


nPeople Productions
nNov. 9
nLittle Theater Olpin Union
nU of U
nNov. 10-11
nArt Access Gallery
n230 S. 500 West
nNov. 18
nLe Sage Bistro
n6831 S. 1300 East

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