‘Fear Up Harsh’ examines honor and secrets

Staged readings are a key part of the developmental process of new plays. They allow a playwright to hear good professional actors delivering dialogue, stir audience reaction and discussion, give the writer a roadmap for cuts, additions and rewrites.

Occasionally, such readings generate a buzz, as in: How soon will this play get the full production it deserves? That’s what happened after Christopher Demos-Brown’s Fear Up Harsh was read as part of last February’s Miami Made Festival.

Previewing Thursday and opening Friday, Fear Up Harsh makes its world premiere as the kickoff production in Zoetic Stage’s fourth season at the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater. One of Zoetic’s four founders, Demos-Brown acknowledges the enthusiastic talk about Fear Up Harsh but says he tries to ignore it.

“I try to put it out of my mind,” says the lawyer and playwright, who won the best new work Carbonell Award for When the Sun Shone Brighter at Florida Stage but has struggled to get multiple productions of his well-received plays. “I’ve become cynical … I don’t know what its future is.”

Fear Up Harsh, whose title comes from the term for enhanced military interrogation techniques (torture, some would call it), focuses on the world of an Iraq War hero. Former U.S. Marine Capt. Robert “Rob” Wellman has been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism in a 2005 battle, combat that robbed him of the use of his legs. Life back home has been difficult — Rob’s wife left him to raise their only daughter alone — but also rewarding, as Rob the hero has become the successful owner of a do-it-yourself home improvement store chain.

Suddenly, though, his past comes calling in the form of U.S. Army Corp. Mary Jean Boudreaux, Rob’s scarred former comrade and a woman whose knowledge could tarnish the hero’s shiny-bright aura. In scenes that alternate between present and past, Demos-Brown explores the complex truths behind manipulated, too-simple narratives.

“The play explores who we are as a culture, who we choose to recognize and idolize,” says actor Stephen G. Anthony, who plays several military men, the president and a cop in Fear Up Harsh. “And it looks at how those honors affect the person being recognized.”

The seeds for Fear Up Harsh were sewn when Demos-Brown attended a military reunion with his father-in-law in Missouri six years ago. The speaker was a Vietnam-era Medal of Honor winner, and listening to him shocked the playwright.

“He had been a medic, and part of what he did was incorporated into the play,” Demos-Brown says. “He gave jaw-dropping descriptions of what he had done, but his speech was horrifying. He was viciously racist and may have been drunk. It hit me like a two-by-four: Certain honors just coat you in Teflon. … Eventually, I came to the idea that the notion of medals and honors was at the core of the play.”

Fear Up Harsh is being staged by Zoetic artistic director Stuart Meltzer, another one of the company’s founders.

Demos-Brown is happy that Meltzer is bringing his time-traveling play to life in a pointedly minimalistic production.

“This one requires quite a few visual elements and moving people around in ways that aren’t obvious. Stuart has a strong aesthetic,” the playwright says. “There are gaps left with someone with a strong vision to fill — for example, the use of Jasper Johns paintings.”

Meltzer calls Fear Up Harsh “a real play of our Zeitgeist.” He believes that the drama is relatable and likely to ignite debate.

“This is an American family struggling for its own identity, struggling to understand the American system and how things actually work,” he says. “I think it will spark dialogue, and that’s healthy. Talking about ways to make our system better and more fair is good for us as Americans.”

Meltzer and Demos-Brown have had a special asset in the rehearsal room in the form of actor Shane Tanner, who plays Rob Wellman. A Carbonell Award nominee making his first appearance with Zoetic, Tanner joined the U.S. Army in 1991 right out of high school, serving until 1995 then staying on with the U.S. Army Reserves until 1999. Although he didn’t see combat during his pre-9/11 tour of duty, Tanner says that his service “gave me a sense of motivation and focus.” He has been able to help Demos-Brown, Meltzer and his fellow actors understand more deeply how those in the military relate to each other, though he says the playwright got that part right.

Anthony, in particular, says he values Tanner’s contributions because “when you’re doing a play about a type of person who’s very different from most of us in this world of theater, you have a heightened responsibility not to sell them short or breeze over details.”

Tanner, unsurprisingly, has a great deal of empathy for his character.

“In the play, there’s a more cynical view of the military than I have. You don’t encounter an officer who isn’t self-serving in the play,” he observes. “Rob holds the values of this country as his utmost ideals. That’s why he joined, why he served, why he sacrificed. He feels he’s served his penance for things he might have done overseas. … So when he first sees Mary Jean, it would be the equivalent of seeing a ghost. The last time he saw her was when his life changed forever. She’s his sister-in-arms. But she’s also the biggest threat to his and his daughter’s current existence.”

Demos-Brown says that originally, he wrote Mary Jean as “a trailer trash white girl.” But soon he began tailoring the part for Karen Stephens, a Carbonell-nominated black actress, transforming the character into “a very, very bright person who happened to grow up without a great deal of formal education. When she gets emotional, she gets more articulate. She has a very complex soul. She has had some real hardships in her life.”

Stephens brings humor and edge to the play as Mary Jean. She has admired Demos-Brown’s past work and is enthusiastic about bringing the character to life through Meltzer’s collaborative rehearsal process.

“Chris’ command of language is stellar. He has a way of elucidating a character’s point of view in a really smart and precise and incisive way. And he finds the right balance of levity and drama,” Stephens says. “Mary Jean delivers so many funny lines. But there’s so much pathos there. Just like real life.”

Jessica Brooke Sanford, a recent New World School of the Arts grad, is making her Zoetic debut as Rob’s daughter Shawn, who is Air Force Academy-bound. Beyond working at the Arsht, being directed by her former teacher Meltzer and exploring intricate scenes with the veteran Stephens, Sanford says she’s just enjoying the surprising ride that is Fear Up Harsh.

“Chris has created a roller coaster. You put all this faith in Rob, then it flips, and your point of view shifts,” she says. “It’s so simple and profound and heart-wrenching. It’s a perfect example of not everything being as it seems.”