Stephen Lang in Beyond Glory
(© Joan Marcus)
Stephen Lang in Beyond Glory
(© Joan Marcus)
In John Patrick Shanley's tough-as-brass Defiance, the always excellent Stephen Lang yet again distinguished himself as a marine colonel in professional and marital conflict. In Beyond Glory, his new and challenging solo turn at the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre, he once again returns to the theme of military men. But this time, Lang skips the morally confused private and professional aspects of veterans reliving their past to focus on the heroic ones.

The stories of these eight Congressional Medal of Honor recipients will both satisfy and edify crowds -- provided they don't expect anything in the way of an actual play. As directed cleanly by Robert Falls and performed on Tony Cisek's set -- complete with John Boesche's evocative projections and a battered Army trunk just off-center -- Beyond Glory will more than gratify audiences who know how to appreciate a bravura performance when it's presented big-as-life and twice as vital.

It's no adverse comment on Lang's sincerity in adapting Larry Smith's 2003 non-fiction book of the same name to say the actor knew exactly how good he could look in a piece like this. For example, he would be able to show off an array of emotions and accents as well as flaunt his Charles Atlas physique. Even before transforming himself into the show's initial real-life figure -- Lieutenant John William Finn, who manned a 50 caliber machine gun through the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor -- Lang's opening pose is like something clipped from a 1940s body-building magazine.

In the show, which originated at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, Lang plays these eight men gazing back on their honored deeds, some of whom have lived for decades with the after-effects of combat injuries. As would be expected, they're men from diverse backgrounds, which affords the actor an opportunity to act as if he's anywhere between middle-aged and old age. Moreover, he's equally effective whether Smith's interviewees are humble, stoic or swaggering, black or white.

What these men all share is the fact that while performing in apparently heroic fashion, they tend to view themselves as operating simply within the strict definitions of duty. They're not beyond it; they simply embody it. As Specialist Fifth Class Clarence Sasser, a medic, insists, "I did what I did because it was my job, and if I didn't do it, none of us were going to get out."

It's particularly noticeable that only one of the eight men depicted would be classified as a warrior. He's staff sergeant Nicky Daniel Bacon, who proudly says, "I enjoyed the game...Honestly, I was good at it." He then launches into a lickety-split how-to-wage-war spiel that substantiates his boast.

In contrast, someone like James Bond Stockdale, the Navy rear admiral familiar to many because he was on Ross Perot's 1992 presidential ticket, matter-of-factly sketches in his seven-and-a-half-year Vietnam POW stay, during which he repeatedly endured torture under which he refused to break. Nor is it claimed by Daniel K. Inouye, the Japanese-American World War II second lieutenant who became a household name during the Watergate hearings, that he did anything more than stand up for the country his father revered.

Confronted with heroes like these, one likely reaction from audience members is self-examination: How would I perform in similar circumstances? Another is relief for not having to find out the answer to that question. A third response is giving serious thought to the men and women at war in Iraq -- or wherever they may be serving. For its ability to provoke these thoughts and for Lang's provocative performance, Beyond Glory earns its own grace-under-pressure ribbon.

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[Editor's Note: Beginning on June 29, Lang will present nominated military service persons with Beyond Glory Declarations of Honor during Friday evening performances of the show. Members of the public can submit the names of family or friends who have served in the military to be eligible for this honor, which also includes four tickets to a Friday performance, by filling out a form at www.roundabouttheatre.org/honors.]