Posts Tagged ‘1968 exhibit’

Medal of Honor Rag
by Tom Cole
Directed by Sean Belt
West End Players Guild
Missouri History Museum
December 5, 2013

Tom Kopp, Reginald Pierre Photo by John Lamb

Tom Kopp, Reginald Pierre
Photo by John Lamb

One of the best things about live theatre is that it is so versatile. It can be so many different things. It can be a big, flashy musical with a large cast and lots of complicated sets and lighting effects; it can be a Shakespearean tragedy with a complex plot;  it can be a light, airy drawing room comedy; or it can simply be a conversation, where all the complexity and drama comes from the characterization of the performers.  Medal of Honor Rag, presented by West End Players Guild is one of those simpler presentations, and this expertly presented production is no  less fascinating than an elaborately staged spectacle.

Tom Cole’s play, which is being presented at the Missouri History Museum in conjunction with the museum’s “1968 Exhibit”, is simply staged and set, depicting a room in a a Pennsylvania Army hospital in the early 1970s.   The set is minimal, with basic office furniture and an imposing security door.  The story (based on a real person) depicts a therapy session, of a traumatized African-American Vietnam vet who has won the Congressional Medal of Honor but finds it difficult to reconcile his life at home with what went on during the war. DJ (Reginald Pierre) meets with psychiatrist Doc (Tom Kopp) in an interview that starts out guarded and becomes increasingly confrontational as it continues, and Doc reveals some personal issues of his own.  In the course of this short play (a little less than an hour and a half, with no intermission), the audience is made witness to the raw emotions of both men as issues of the morality of war, survivor’s guilt, and racial prejudices (both overt and covert) are brought to light.

This is essentially a two-man show. Darrious Varner is fine in a small role as an Army guard, but for the vast majority of the play, the stage belongs to Pierre and Kopp.  The weight of this play rests on their shoulders, and they carry it extremely well.  Pierre’s DJ is wounded (emotionally rather than physically), suspicious, alternately numb and agitated, and ultimately sympathetic.  He portrays a regular guy turned damaged war vet in with all his volatile energy, and his wrestling with reconciling his actions in war with his winning a medal for those actions, as well as his guilt for having survived the war, are dynamically portrayed.  Kopp as Doc, with an oddly balanced mixture of smugness, nerves, and compassion, serves as both a foil and a support for DJ.  Doc genuinely wants to help DJ but doesn’t exactly know how, and DJ is not sure what to think since he’s seen a succession of doctors and re-hashed his story over and over, although this doctor seems both the same and different at once. This tension is well portrayed by the actors as they take us through a whirlwind of emotions, and the issues–of whether the Vietnam War, or any war for that matter, is justified, or how a man can function amid the brutal amorality of a combat setting (and get rewarded for it) and then come home and expect to resume a “normal” life, and whether his survivor’s guilt can ever be overcome, and also of a doctor’s dilemma of how to help his patient–are made immediate and believable by the remarkable performances of these two actors.

The staging is simple, dynamic and builds well, from the tense formality at the beginning to the violent emotional and physical sparring, and the abrupt, quiet and devastating conclusion. The action is perfectly pitched by director Belt and his cast, and the very simple set (by Ken Clark) suggests the time and place effectively.  This is an expertly written, crafted and performed piece of theatre, distilling all of the intensity of these issues into one relatively brief performance that holds the audience’s attention and makes us not only think about, but feel for these men, and DJ in particular. 

The Vietnam War ended almost 40 years ago, but its influence on American history and culture is still apparent, and shows like this help us to remember.  The issue of war itself, and whether it is ever necessary, will always be a topic of discussion and debate, as will the effects of war upon its individual participants.  For those of us who haven’t experienced combat first-hand, a play like this one takes these issues out of the realm of the academic and makes them personal.  It doesn’t provide easy answers to any of the questions it raises, but this is never going to be an easy issue. Medal of Honor Rag  an intense, gripping play, and West End Players Guild’s production brings it to life with remarkable clarity, emotion and strength.

Reginald Pierre, Tom Kopp Photo by John Lamb

Reginald Pierre, Tom Kopp
Photo by John Lamb


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