‘American Hero” is the second play of a trilogy by Christopher Demos-Brown, whose intention is to explore “American injustice.” The favorably received “American Son,” the first of the trilogy to premiere last season at the George Street Playhouse, is scheduled for a Broadway production next fall. In that play an estranged mixed-race couple attempt to get police officers to tell them what happened to their college-bound son.
In “American Hero” an Iraqi war veteran/hero is being prepared to receive the Medal of Honor, the armed forces’ highest commendation, three years after an act of bravery that has left him unable to walk. U.S. Marine Captain “Rob” Wellman (Armand Schultz) is divorced, confined to a wheelchair, and lives at home with Shawn (Kally Duling), his 17-year-old daughter. In a family with a long military history, Shawn is anticipating attending the Air Force Academy following high school graduation.
An unexpected visitor has let herself into their home with a key that Rob had given her during a time when she was a member of his squad serving in Iraq. She is Mary Jean Boudreaux (Laiona Michelle) an African-American U.S. Army Corporal in her mid-30s who we learn saved his life following a battle that left her with facial scarring. Despite being a little unnerved by her unannounced appearance, Rob and Shawn are, nevertheless, hospitable even when she discloses there is a warrant out for her arrest.
Aware of the ceremonies that made Rob a national symbol of heroism and valor, Mary’s intensions are to set the record straight as she recalls the actual event. The cleverly constructed and emotionally gripping 95-minute play, under the direction of David Saint, delivers quite a number of tense and revelatory segments, each providing opportunities for relationships to be tested.
Events that take place in the present take place in the forefront of the expressionistic setting created by designer Jason Simms. Raised in the background is a sight of a bombed out building in Iraq, the war zone where actual combat and the event in question is depicted with gripping realism. The play moves artfully between the present and past to create what we see as a resolution that isn’t necessarily what we might anticipate.
The play opens with the enactment of a battle (kudos to fight director Rick Sordelet and sound designer Scott Killian), with this gritty scene returning again to show the squad using water-boarding defined as “enhanced interrogation techniques” to get information from an Iraqi woman. Just as unsettling are the self-serving visits to Rob by various top brass, including a Pentagon aide and a brigadier general who want to ensure his speech at the ceremony has the right slant. What makes it sadly ironic is that Rob is stopped from giving credit to the corporal who saved his life. John Bolger is the excellent actor who plays all these almost comically bombastic supporting characters.
Schultz is excellent as the conflicted captain whose loyalty to the Marine Corps may be enough for him to deny the part played in the battle by the army corporal whose visit also stirs up a hornet’s nest of issues with Shawn. There is considerable credibility in the tentative to tenacious route Shawn takes as she and Mary bond in an unexpected way.
As Mary becomes an increasingly disquieting, even incendiary presence, Laiona Michelle (in an emotionally gripping performance) lets us see the core of her grievances as we also become a witness to the cause of her fugitive state.
Aside from having written seven full-length plays and won of multiple awards, Christopher Demos-Brown is also a full-time civil litigator. For someone who thrives on high stakes of a dramatic nature, the playwright lets us consider the price and just how high the stakes are for manipulating heroism.
American Hero, George Street Playhouse, 103 College Farm Road, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, February 25. $40 to $65. 732-246-7717 or www.georgestreetplayhouse.org.