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Medal of Honor Rag

Reviewed by Karl Levett

Presented by the Blue Heron Theatre at the Blue Heron Arts Center, 123 E. 24 St., NYC, Jan. 25-Feb. 18.

When, in the course of this intermissionless drama, a brief audiotape is played, suddenly it really does sound like the 1960s again. It is LBJ in the White House honoring Medal of Honor recipients at the height of the Vietnam War. The blindness and the hypocrisy of the speech are immediately evident, celebrating a war that would deliver a knockout punch to America—and to LBJ himself. This 1976 play by Tom Cole, revived by the Blue Heron Theatre, is a veritable time capsule of that controversial time. Based upon the real life story of Sergeant Dwight Johnson, this time capsule is also a Pandora's box, releasing problems still swirling about us.

At the Valley Forge Army Hospital in 1971, a psychiatrist (Thomas James O'Leary) conducts a therapy session with Dale Jackson (Reginald James), an African-American Medal of Honor-winner, now in a downward spiral of disintegration. The play consists of this single session, with a coda, and while it follows conventional lines, it still contains enough intellectual and emotional heat to merit attention. While the session contains the usual heightened stripping of layers, the play's ebb and flow has a plausibility that is never lost in this examination of "survivor guilt." The fact that the doctor is also a survivor—from the Holocaust—is a little too bookend pat, and, once introduced, never developed. But the big themes are race and compassion, wrapped in a history lesson that is very ripe to be told to another generation. And it only takes 65 minutes.

On a tiny set, evocatively lit by Roman J. Tatarowicz, Jim Pelegano crisply directs the action. Apart from a guard (a very gung-ho Adam Brown), there are just the two protagonists in a hellbent game of parry and thrust. O'Leary's doctor is a model of sympathetic sense, in a nicely modulated performance. James convincingly provides the play's raw edge, delivering a welter of confused emotions. Playwright Tom Cole's work stands up well to the test of time—certainly worthy of giving him a bio in the program!

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