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Volume 77, Number 3 | June 20 - 26, 2007

Photo by Joan Marcus

Stephen Lang in “Beyond Glory,” now in previews at the Roundabout Theater Company.

Finding the common thread of heroism

By Jerry Tallmer

A year ago, when he was burning up the Off-Broadway boards as a no-nonsense, by-the-book Marine colonel with an extramarital Achilles heel in John Patrick Shanley’s “Defiance,” Stephen Lang had said that no, he hadn’t met any of the eight men he would next be portraying — eight recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor — in his incoming “Beyond Glory,” and wouldn’t care to.

 “I mean,” actor Lang had said, “Vernon Baker now, he’s in his 80s, an African-American, for me to go knock on his door and say: ‘Mr. Baker, I’m going to play you …” Lang let the image end with one word: “Weird.”

 Reminded of that, 12 months later, with “Beyond Glory” having at last reached New York after Washington, Chicago, and military and naval bases around the world, actor Lang, who is also playwright Lang, laughed and said: “To me, if that happened, the best thing he — Mr. Baker — could say would be: ‘Well, I always hoped it would be Morgan, but you’re a good second.’ ”

 Morgan Freeman, that is — in case anybody draws a blank.

 “Beyond Glory” is Stephen Lang’s stage adaptation, or distillation, of eight of some 26 or 27 narratives in Larry Smith’s gripping “Beyond Glory: Medal of Honor Winners in Their Own Words” (Norton, 2003) — even if Lang believes the words win or winners is inappropriate when it comes to Medals of Honor, especially since so many of them are posthumous.

 Back to Vernon Baker, who was first informed, at a recruiting office in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in April 1941: “We ain’t got no quotas for people like you,” but a month later, when he tried again, was signed up by a different recruiting officer.

 “I got sent to Camp Wolters, Texas, where racism hit me square in the face … I mean, I was on the bus to Camp Wolters, and I put my duffel down and went to take a seat, and the driver said: ‘Get out of that seat, nigger, get in the back where you belong’ …

 “Then sometime in ’42 a white officer, and I do not recall his name, told me to sign up for Officer Candidate’s School, so I did. I was commissioned a second lieutenant on January 11, 1943 … 

 “See, what was happening was they were organizing an all-black division, the 92nd. It was the Buffalo Division, we were Buffalo soldiers. That’s a name they give the black units in the Indian wars because our black skin and nappy hair” — ah there, Don Imus — “made them [the Indians] think we were buffaloes.”

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity, at the risk of his own life, above and beyond the call of duty, in action [at Castle Aghinolfi, Italy] on 5 and 6 April 1945, Lieutenant Baker advanced at the head of his weapons platoon … Moving more rapidly than the rest of the company, Lieutenant Baker came within 250 yards of the castle … shot [an] enemy twice as he tried to flee, [and] then went down into the draw alone. There he blasted open the concealed entrance to another dugout with a hand grenade, and commenced firing. As Lt. Baker climbed out of the draw, enemy machine-gun and mortar fire began to inflict heavy casualties among the group of 25 [American] soldiers, killing or wounding about two-thirds of them … Lt. Baker single-handedly killed 17 of the enemy, taking out four machine-gun nests, an observation post, two bunkers … Lt. Baker’s fighting spirit and daring leadership were an inspiration to his men and exemplify the highest traditions of the military service.
That’s one of the eight in “Beyond Glory,” a Roundabout Theatre presentation at the Laura Pels, on West 46th Street, directed by Robert Falls.

 “I wanted diversity of ethnicity and branches of the service and the different wars, WW II, Korea, Vietnam” — diversity of everything but gender, for in the whole history of the Congressional Medal of Honor there has been only one female recipient, and though she is not in this show — that would be a stretch — Lang, through his research, knows a good bit about her.

 “She was Mary Walker, a doctor, a white woman, on the Union side in the Civil War [though she treated the wounded of both sides]. The Medal of Honor was created during the Civil War. There was a big hoo-ha over her award, [the postwar bureaucrats] rescinded it, they even wanted her medal back — the actual medal itself! — and she wouldn’t give it back, she wore it proudly around her neck all the rest of her life.”

 Stephen Lang, in his time, has played everything from Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, to Happy, the feckless dumb-jock son of Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, and he has also, for reasons he cannot explain and doesn’t particularly savor — “terrific roles, though I have little attraction to those roles” — donned a uniform more than a few times on stage or screen as General George E, Pickett, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Colonel Nathan Jessup of “A Few Good Men,” or, last year, Colonel Morgan Littlefield of “Defiance.”

 It was some four years ago that Lang was in a contest of one-on-one basketball at 6:30 on a Sunday morning up at Mr. Kisko with a fellow he did not know much about beyond the guy’s name, Larry Smith.

 “I was sitting there, lacing my shoes, and he was sitting there lacing his, when I asked: ‘What do you do?’ He said he’d been editor of Parade magazine and that he’d just written a book called ‘Beyond Glory.’ The next Sunday he brought me a set of galleys of the book. I went home and spent a couple of hours on the edge of my chair, reading it.

 “A lot of it I found myself reading out loud. Right away these voices were coming out very clearly. I just had the gut feeling that this material was extremely dramatizable. When I was 25 or 30 pages into it, I stopped and began to try to shape the first piece in the book, about a guy at Pearl Harbor named John William Finn” — who was about to make love to his wife when the first Japanese planes hit — “into a dramatic nugget, a kind of bouillon cube of drama.

 “Then I asked my wife Kristina [mother of their four children] to come in and listen. In a few moments she was in tears, and my wife is hard-boiled.”
Vernon Baker speaks:

“I went back down that draw and up that hill the next day. Only people left on that hillside were my dead men, and they were all barefooted. The enemy were gone, but they’d taken the boots off the dead men …

“My commission expired in ’47, but I re-upped. In order to stay in I had to go down to master sergeant, but I have no complaints. I saw a lot of prejudice fall by the wayside. Look, this was the only country I had, and I felt in my heart that things would get better, that America, the United States, was growing up …

 “I received the Medal of Honor on a cold January afternoon in 1997 from President Clinton. Seven were awarded that day, but I was the only one still walking around. When the President put that blue ribbon around my neck, I was thinking of 19 bootless men left on a hillside.”

 Eight men, eight stories, all different, yet in one fundamental respect all the same. Stephen Lang, or Larry Smith, or both, put the common thread of heroism into one sentence: “The biggest thing you find, if you read the citations, is [the] feeling that somebody had to do something.”

BEYOND GLORY. Performed and adapted by Stephen Lang from the book of that title by Larry Smith. Directed by Robert Falls. Now in previews toward its June 21 opening as a Roundabout presentation at the Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, (212) 719-1300, www.roundaboutheatre.org.

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