“American Hero” comes to the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick with high expectations. It’s the second play of a planned trilogy by Christopher Demos-Brown; George Street presented the first play, “American Son,” last year, and it was absolutely riveting. At opening night for “American Hero,” George Street artistic director David Saint (also the play’s director) announced that “American Son” will open on Broadway in November.
I didn’t find “American Hero” — which has actually been presented previously, elsewhere, with a different title, “Fear Up Harsh” — quite as powerful as “American Son.” But it’s still a first-rate play, approaching Demos-Brown’s stated topic for his trilogy — American injustice — from a different angle.
Wheelchair-bound Marine captain Rob Wellman (Armand Schultz) is back home after serving in the Iraq War. He’s the owner of a successful chain of hardware stores, and an overprotective single father to a daughter, Shawn, who will soon graduate high school and plans to enter the Air Force.
Rob is also being considered for a Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest and most prestigious military award.
This is a really big deal. The medal comes with all kinds of perks; it will make him “a demigod,” a general (John Bolger) tells him.
Enter Mary Jean Boudreaux (Laiona Michelle), a facially scarred Army corporal who served with Rob, and was close enough to him that he gave her a copy of his house key in case she ever needed it (that was a detail, I admit, that seemed a little far-fetched). Anyway, she barges in on Shawn one day, unannounced. When Rob gets home, he’s ecstatic to see her. But then things get complicated.
It seems she’s in trouble, and Rob has the power to help her. BUT doing so might jeopardize his chances for that coveted Congressional Medal of Honor. And so Rob is in quite a bind.
There are flashbacks — vividly staged by Saint — where we learn more about what really happened in Iraq. In addition to playing the general, Bolger also appears as various other authority figures who exert pressure on Rob, in different ways, to not rock the boat. There’s all kinds of political stuff involved in this Congressional Medal of Honor thing, it turns out.
Like “American Son” — which is set in a police station as an African-American woman awaits news about her son, who may or may not have been involved in a police incident — “American Hero” has a lot to say about race and socioeconomic status, and how people make quick and sometimes unfair judgements about other. Rob is white and well-spoken, and behaves conservatively. Mary Jean — also an excellent soldier, we’re told — is an African-American lesbian who talks loudly and has a generally abrasive manner.
Guess who the military powers-that-be want to be the hero, and who they want to be the scapegoat?
But really being a hero means doing what’s right, not just following the script. Rob may have acted heroically under fire, in Iraq. But can he summon the strength to stand up to injustice, back home? Does it matter that he has a daughter whom he adores, and who will benefit from the medal, too, while Mary Jean is childless? Should we give him a break, because of all that he has been through?
Demos-Brown also asks, does it matter that society, on some level, needs heroes? And is that something worth fudging the truth for?
Hold on to your seats. It’s going to be a rocky ride.
“American Hero” is at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through Feb. 25; visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.