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."
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."
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