The honor, the horror
Medal of Honor Rag
Three Penny Theatre1723 25th St.
Sacramento, CA 95816
Medal of Honor Rag is based on a true story about a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. Of course, it was called “combat trauma” when Tom Cole wrote it in the mid-’70s. Nevertheless, keeping its tradition of presenting socially relevant productions, California Stage Company made an excellent choice to kick off its 20th season with the Sacramento premiere of Cole’s play.
It packs a wallop in just an hour. Medal of Honor Rag is successful because it’s simple: The one-scene play is a one-hour therapy session in a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital. There are three characters: a psychiatrist, veteran and police guard, a minor role played by American River College theater student Robert Bogue. Equally simple is the set: a table and two chairs—one for the psychiatrist, played by Patrick Murphy; the other for Vietnam veteran Dale “D.J.” Jackson, played by Isaac Williams. Sparse staging allowed a packed house of two dozen to smell each word, tear and raw emotion.
Williams, a UC Davis undergraduate majoring in history, plays a Medal of Honor-winning veteran with chutzpah. As D.J., a witty but unstable African-American vet, Williams conveys effectively what the horrors of war do to even the most outstanding men. Raised in a Detroit slum by a single mother, D.J. was a good Christian boy, always running the opposite direction of trouble. So it was understandably traumatizing being placed in the middle of heavy fire in Vietnam, inside an immobilized tank. Seeing some of his close friends killed triggers a moment of violent rage. D.J. loses his mind and does the exact opposite of what he was raised to do—single-handedly killing dozens of enemy soldiers in several rampaging minutes.
He’s still enraged out of his mind while he’s straightjacketed and shipped back to the United States. Eventually calming down, he passes an evaluation and is discharged on medical leave. Then he’s awarded the Medal of Honor.
His war experiences give D.J. survivor guilt, a symptom of PTSD. Later, the psychiatrist shares his own story of survivor’s guilt, having outlived his family in a World War II Nazi concentration camp. One moment, the two share the bond of fragile humans who’ve experienced horrible trauma. Then, they’re polar opposites again: a poor young African-American from Detroit, juxtaposing a successful New York psychiatrist from Poland. Yet, as they keep talking, they transcend generational and racial divides and one fact becomes decidedly clear: War is a human-created hell.
Director Janis Stevens paces the production to keep emotional intensity at the forefront—there is no doubt that trauma-induced insanity is the natural outcome of war.
Medal of Honor Rag highlights the psychological and physical toll that PTSD has on people. An alarming estimated 35 percent of the Iraq War veterans coming home by the end of the year will have PTSD. This production is a challenging but beautiful homage to the power of healing: Members of Sacramento’s Viet Vet House redeveloped the R25 Arts Center, which houses the California Stage. They healed themselves by discussing their traumas in “rap sessions” and constructed the very place where Medal of Honor Rag would later be staged.