By the time that arm, belonging to Daniel K. Inouye, makes its surprise appearance in the final scene, you've long stopped believing you can be shocked by anything. By that point, you've already been exposed to the startling stories of seven other Americans, for whom the word "hero" is the closest accurate designation and who have given an incredible amount for the country they spent significant parts of their lives serving.
All eight men are recipients of the United States military's highest decoration, the Medal of Honor, and each related how he earned the Medal to Larry Smith for preservation in what became his 2003 book, Beyond Glory. Lang's adaptation is more or less a straightforward one, bringing the book's first-person accounts to life with little fuss or filigree. It simply, but powerfully, emphasizes the vast spectrum of personalities, backgrounds, and wars (World War II, Korea, and Vietnam) that defined these men. But Lang's portrayal of all of them, in a dizzying round robin of impeccably honed craft, is and is likely to remain one of this season's most memorable tours de force.
As the 97-year-old John William Finn, who against unthinkable odds mounted a machine gun installation to repel the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Lang perfectly conveys the shimmering inner light of a man who's never forgotten how lucky he was to survive that day. For the second scene, he transforms so completely into the 60-year-old Clarence Sasser, an African-American Vietnam medic who risked his life several times over to tend to his critically wounded comrades, it's almost as if you can see Lang's face drop three decades and its skin color changing before your eyes.
Lang plays Lewis L. Millet, an Army captain whose story about Korea ironically (if improbably) centers on a bayonet, with an anachronistic, disjointed glee invoking his own private Lawrence of Arabia; there's also a sense of bemused entertainment about Nicky Daniel Bacon, an Army Staff Sergeant, who led his platoon to an against-the-odds success but declares he "enjoyed the game" of it all. Lang goes into full guy-next-door mode as Hector Cafferata, a Marine who made major inroads against Korean forces in November of 1950.
Some stories are legitimately harrowing, such as that of James Bond Stockdale, who psychologically fought back against Vietnamese torture tactics in the Hanoi Nilton, or Inouye, who fought on through a WWII battle even after a devastating encounter with a hand grenade. (Stockdale was Ross Perot's running mate in the 1992 Presidential election, and died in 2005; Inouye is today the senior senator from Hawaii.) Vernon J. Baker tearfully recounts his history as a World War II survivor who wasn't recognized until President Bill Clinton saw to it in 1997; Baker's even plays a role in Inouye's life, creating one of the show's most unexpected dramatic moments.
Lang's reverence and respect for these men is hauntingly mirrored in Robert Falls's direction, which places the play somewhere between reenactment and documentary but remains throughout a cutting exploration of the deepest depths of valor. Dan Covey's lighting design, Cecil Averett's sound, Robert Kessler and Ethan Neuburg's original music, and John Boesche's projections provide stirring complements for each of the eight scenes without ever toppling the fragile illusions Lang so studiously creates.
A few attempts to heighten the echoing evanescence of memory, usually with mottled excerpts (played over the theater's loudspeakers) from the men's Medal ceremonies, give the play in fleeting moments a too-manufactured theatrical feel. There was no need for that overkill; Lang and his cohorts on the creative team do a superb job of making you feel like you're fighting right beside these men. The stories in Beyond Glory make you glad you didn't have to endure what they did, while giving you faith and pride that anyone could, and live to tell the tale.