Stephen Lang began reading Larry Smith's book Beyond Glory because he was interested in the topic: stories from Medal of Honor winners in their own words.
The stories were something of a rarity because more than 70 percent of Medal of Honor winners don't live to tell their tales.
"The stories were so inherently dramatic, I just felt there was a piece of theater in there and I just began messing around with it; messing around to some success in my own mind," Lang says.
He struck an agreement with Smith, a former editor at Parade magazine, to let Lang adapt the book into a stage show. Since 2003, the one-man, 75-minute show has toured around the world, including military bases and major metropolitan stages in New York, Chicago and elsewhere.
Monday night, the actor who has had roles in Avatar, A Few Good Men and numerous other films, TV and stage productions, brings Beyond Glory to Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts in Danville.
In adapting the book, Lang's first task was chosing among the 25 heroes Smith profiled.
"Each of the stories is worth telling and worth turning into a piece of drama, but I really wanted to get a range: I wanted diverse wars, I wanted diverse services, I wanted diverse ethnicities," Lang said from a tour stop in Memphis. "So I have to say, I feel a certain regret for the men that I haven't included.
"On the other hand, I think the ones I have included speak for themselves as well as speaking for everyone."
One of the men Lang included is familiar to political junkies: Adm. James Stockdale, who ran for vice president in 1992 on an independent ticket with businessman H. Ross Perot. Stockdale's bewilderment during the vice presidential debate with Democrat Al Gore and Republican Dan Quayle made him a political punch line. But before that, he was one of the most decorated men in the history of the Navy.
"Admiral Stockdale received the Medal of Honor, really not for one action, though in the citation, they had to give it a name," Lang says. "But what he really received it for was 71/2 years of sustained fortitude and leadership at the Hanoi Hilton, under the most dire circumstances — circumstances of torture and intimidation, and he never broke."
In 10 years of presenting the show, Lang says, he has considered folding in stories from Medal of Honor winners in the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, he concluded, "One of the things that gives real weight to the drama in this is the fact there is a sense of historical perspective. The most recent ones I deal with are from Vietnam. So we're talking years and years ago, and the men have really had time to reflect on the events to try to come to an understanding of why they did what they did and what it means.
"The way we work in the media and the entertainment industry is an event happens, and within a couple days, we have sold the rights and gotten the movie together. And often, all we get is a re-creation of events rather than illumination."
Illumination is what he is going for. While Lang says military audiences usually get the show right off the bat, it is often civilian audiences that gain a greater understanding of military sacrifice.
"Civilian audiences often don't have an understanding or empathy with what it means to be in the military and live your life in the middle of a conflict, as our troops who are on the line do," Lang says. "I feel the show provides some insight into that in a way that is extremely dramatic, entertaining, hopefully illuminating and even inspiring."
IF YOU GO
What: Stephen Lang's one-man show, which he adapted from Larry Smith's book, Beyond Glory: Medal of Honor Heroes in Their Own Words.
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 18
Where: Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts, 600 W. Walnut St., Danville
Tickets: $24-$46. Available at 1-877-448-7469 or Nortoncenter.com.