Three times now, Stephen Lang has found himself saddled with a useless arm. As Stonewall Jackson and the “one-armed man” on a revival of “The Fugitive,” an able-bodied Lang had to learn to hide one of his arms. “There’s a real pattern here,” said Lang.
That ability will serve him well next month as he portrays former Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI). Inouye is one of seven recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor that Lang, a veteran of stage and screen, will represent onstage as he premieres the one-man show, “Beyond Glory” next month at the Women’s Memorial at Arlington Cemetery.
Based on the book of the same name by former Parade magazine editor Larry Smith, the show follows the lives of seven veterans from three American wars before and after the heroism that earned them the highest award available to the American military.
Rehearsing for “Beyond Glory” in a District theater, Lang looks the part of a soldier, with close-cropped silver hair. In a mostly bare room, he plays an Asian man, black soldiers and Texans. The only set dressing during rehearsal is a stool, and an open footlocker. Set on a largely bare stage, the play comes “out of a trunk,” said Lang.
“It was just extraordinary, without a set, without costumes, without music,” said Marilla Cushman, director of public affairs for the Women’s Memorial, who watched Lang perform the play in an early read-through. “You’re just struck by the fact that these heroes walk among us everyday.”
<b>DRAMA CENTERING ON</b> military heroes is timely, with Americans dying overseas, said Lang. “Beyond Glory” is not a story about the war in Iraq, it doesn’t preach right or wrong, he said. “There’s not an ounce of politics in this show.”
The play isn’t really even about fighting, or the cruelties of war. “War is less the point than their life before or after,” he said: How each soldier’s life comes into play in battle, and how those actions can echo through their later lives.
That was the power in Smith’s book, said Barney Barnum, awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in Vietnam in 1965. Now deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for reserve affairs and a Reston resident, Barnum was profiled in Smith’s book. He welcomed a play based on “Beyond Glory.”
“Right now, I think it’s really important to talk about the sacrifices and the service people have made for this great country,” said Barnum.
That means more than just counting the number of shots fired. “An awful lot of books out there just talk about the battle,” said Barnum. “But [Smith] sat down and spent hours and hours with every guy in that book, and tells where he’s coming from.”
<b>SMITH’S ATTENTION TO</b> his subjects drew Lang to the project. The two men are regulars at the same early Sunday pick-up basketball game in New York, said Lang. Lacing up one Sunday last May, the two men started talking about Smith’s then-soon-to-be-released book.
The next week, Lang took an advance copy home, sat down and started reading. The stories were naturals for stage adaptation, said Lang. “What he was dealing with were the eternal verities: loyalty, courage humility,” the stuff of dramas by Aeschylus and Sophocles.
So Lang began adapting the stories that especially struck him, trying to boil down 30 pages of biography into a few minutes on stage. In the end, he had adapted the stories of about 10 of the 23 recipients in Smith’s book.
“As I’d finish writing one, I’d do it for my wife,” said Lang. “She’s always been my most astute and toughest critic — she knows all my tricks — and she always ended up sitting in tears.”
After working out some kinks in workshop performances, Lang whittled the play down to seven stories: Pearl Harbor survivor John Finn; Inouye and Vernon Baker, minority soldiers in a segregated World War II-era Army; Lew Millet, a soldier during WWII, Korea and Vietnam; and Vietnam vets Nick Bacon, Clarence Sasser and James Stockdale. Millet serves as a recurring voice in the play.
The decision about which recipients to include essentially made itself, said Lang: As he read Smith’s book, some voices stood out. Bacon’s discussion of the do’s and don’ts of jungle warfare was free-form poetry, and Finn’s story of his courtship was an almost cinematic description.
<b>LANG WROTE THE PIECES</b> as a work for an ensemble. But after performing the monologues in his head while writing them, and reading them for his wife and in workshop, “I missed my own voice,” he said.
The Women’s Memorial production is a one-man show, with relatively few props, lights or sets — an advantage for the play, Lang said, because it can be easily adapted for schools or community theaters.
That’s the real point of the play: like a soldier’s pack, it should travel well. It should be easy to take on the road, said Lang, and it should be flexible, including new narratives as they become available, adapting to new terrain.
“The truth of the matter is, if I do this piece on the road for 30 years, I’d still be 15 years younger than some of the guys I play,” said Lang.