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The opening scene of Fear Up Harsh may be the closest a theater audience can get to the bowels of a war zone. It's set in Muqdadiyah, a hellhole that American soldiers affectionately called "the nastiest town in Iraq" during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Marines and Army corporals are battling a hail of gunfire as three voices interrupt one another. One of the heroes is shot — paralyzed — and needs to be dragged away from the battle scene.
And it all takes place in pitch-blackness, the only illumination coming from tracers slicing through the cacophonous air. The voices of screaming soldiers bleed into the more benign scene that follows, like the lingering remnants of a nightmare. Time passes before you have the opportunity to exhale.
"There's a lot of confusion throughout the play, and slowly, things unfold," says Stuart Meltzer, who is directing the production for his company, Zoetic Stage. "In that way, the playwright gives us an opportunity to explore different ways of storytelling. It's almost like being cinematic for the stage."
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Despite this intense, Saving Private Ryan-style prologue, Fear Up Harsh isn't really about war. Most of the play, which opens this weekend at the Adrienne Arsht Center, takes place in the affluent living room of Rob Wellman (Shane Tanner), the Marine who lost the use of his legs in enemy fire and earned a Medal of Honor.
Playwright Christopher Demos-Brown turns away from the battlefield, instead focusing on the impact of medals and accolades. As a general in the play puts it, "Once that medal gets put around your neck? You're untouchable. You could go all Columbine on us — they'd still give you a key to the city."
This line, in particular, harkens to Demos-Brown's inspiration for the play several years ago, when he attended a reunion of military veterans with his father, a World War II vet.
"One year, they had as a guest this guy who had won the Medal of Honor in Vietnam," he recalls. "What the guy did was stunningly heroic and inspiring, but when he got up to talk, he was about as off-putting a person as I've ever heard speak in public. He was crass and rude and racist and coarse, and I realized when I heard this guy that once you get the Medal of Honor, you can say whatever you want. You've been cloaked with unimpeachability."
A single father raising a spunky, rebellious daughter (Jessica Sanford), Rob is uncomfortable with this sense of imperviousness, partly because he's still plagued by the events that led to his presidential honor — a nest of secrets and fudged facts that has spawned guilt, combined with PTSD symptoms. That opening sequence doesn't tell the whole story. Fear Up Harsh becomes a double-tracked mystery, vacillating between a modern, linear story and flashbacks that move counterclockwise until we're back at that opening, viewing it with more clarity.
"When I finally latched onto how I was going to organize this play, I thought it was really about how a story gets manipulated," Demos-Brown says. "We wanted this to be somewhat Brechtian. We wanted you to be aware that this is not meant to depict reality."
This being a Demos-Brown play — he wrote the hilarious and widely praised Captiva for Zoetic in 2011 — the story is not all doom, artillery shells, and torture. It's witty a lot of the time and peppered with references as varied as Charlotte's Web, Pussy Riot, and Larry Bird.
"I was happy that there was so much levity in the script, because it presented a balance," says Karen Stephens, who plays Rob's Army colleague. "It's reflective of real life; we have the real tragic moments, and they're balanced out by moments of hilarity."
For Tanner, himself an Army veteran in the early 1990s, one of the show's challenges was inhabiting a wheelchair-bound character.
"My tendency as an actor is to always be reacting," he says. "And usually in a show, you're able to use 100 percent of your body to express any kind of physicality that would be appropriate. And I did recognize in the first few days [of rehearsal] that my muscles would tense up, even if I wasn't lifting my legs. And I knew that just for my muscles to move in my foot would be inaccurate."
But don't expect the show to dwell on its character's physical handicap. As Demos-Brown says, his subject is more universal than Rob's situation or even than the Medal of Honor itself.
"If you're nominated for an Oscar, your value goes up," he says. "If you are even a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in drama, suddenly everybody wants to do your play. So I thought that was an interesting thing to explore. I would like the play to ask, what does that do to the person who receives the award or recognition? And how does it affect the people who are in the position of power... It can have a very powerful corrupting effect on both."
And how has Demos-Brown been affected by the Carbonell Award he took home back in 2011?
"You start adjusting what you do to getting awards," he says. "I like to say the two biggest lies in South Florida theater are 'I never read my reviews' and 'I don't care about the awards.'"