Medal of Honor Rag | St. Louis Actors’ Studio

play_slas.jpgBryan Keith gives a powerful and ingratiating performance as DJ.



Jan. 30 – Feb. 15, 2009

At a time in our history when we’re engaged in a war that’s not likely to end any time soon despite a change in presidency and philosophy, Medal of Honor Rag reminds us all of the sacrifices made by those who fight for their country. Though it’s set in 1971, its relevance to today’s audience is a moot point. The only shortcoming here is a certain degree of familiarity that permeates the work, and it’s probably a direct result of the amount of material that’s tread upon similar water over the past 40 years. However, I still consider this essential viewing because we need to remember our past so we can stop repeating the same costly mistakes.

A doctor examines a soldier named Dale Jackson (he prefers to be called DJ) who’s been traumatized by his combat experience, and been laid up at the Valley Forge Army Hospital after failing to assimilate back into society since being sent home. The twist here is that the soldier is the recipient of the medal of honor; a result of heroic efforts that found him the last man standing among his unit when a battle broke out. The doctor recognizes his behavior as being symptomatic of a condition known as "survivor’s grief," something he’s experienced as well, but his efforts to help DJ cure himself are undermined by his desire to see him send his medal back in an act of protest. Of course, that’s the irony inherent in the medal itself. It’s a double-edged sword that can bring wealth and fame, while remaining a reward of sorts for killing vast numbers of the enemy.

Bryan Keith gives a powerful and ingratiating performance as DJ. Shuffling around in his bathrobe and standard hospital-issue pajamas, he embodies the role fully, alternating between closed-mouth, mind-numbing frustration and a rage tempered by his genial nature. For this play to even have a chance at connecting with its audience, there has to be a strong actor in this part, and Keith delivers the goods.

Less successful but solid overall, Tyler Vickers plays the doctor intent on getting through to DJ. Though he’s supposed to be the older of the two characters, he doesn’t project that difference in maturity or guile. Since the angle is brought up by DJ that this doctor may just be using him to gain his own measure of fame, I was looking for something more conspiratorial rather than overly sympathetic in Vickers’ portrayal…but maybe that’s just my own paranoid cynicism creeping in. Keith Borzillo amuses as an MP, bringing some humor to a mostly somber and dramatic piece.

David Wassilak’s direction is assured and engaging. Despite the cramped confines, the action is compelling and involving. Patrick Huber’s fluorescent lighting and industrial green color scheme evoke the proper sterile atmosphere.

Tom Cole’s one-act play Medal of Honor Rag still resonates, but it may have lost some of its bite because we’ve simply seen so many of these types of stories dramatized in various mediums. And I probably would’ve utilized a newer song like Springsteen’s "Last to Die" (from Magic) to close, rather than opting for the time worn cliché of Hendrix ripping through "The Star Spangled Banner." I mean, you want to at least make some kind of connection to the present. | Chris Gibson


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