'Still Life': its anguish fails to move

Still Life, Play by Emily Mann. Directed by Miss Mann. Sitting through "Still Life," at the American Place Theater, is like eavesdropping on a confessional or a group therapy session. According to a program note, the lengthy monologues delivered by the three troubled characters onstage are, for the most part, the words spoken to Emily Mann when she talked with the actual persons concerned. From these 1978 conversations, director-interviewer Mann has contrived something between a nonplay and a docudrama.

Seated behind a table on a raised platform at one end of a crowded little auditorium, Vietnam veteran Mark (John Spencer), his pregnant wife, Cheryl (Mary McDonnell), and his mistress, Nadine (Timothy Near), tell their stories. As the central figure of the triangle, Mark strives to comprehend his dilemma, relate it to his Vietnam experience, and reconcile the horrors of that experience with the values he lost but still cherishes. From time to time, the guilt-ridden ex-marine shows slides -- some of them extremely harrowing -- of photographs taken in Vietnam.

Though directly and indirectly affected by what the war has done to Mark, the two women have hangups and traumatic memories of their own. Through their reminiscences and observations, Miss Mann recaptures the ferment of the '60s -- the peace protests and activism, the drug scene, the bruising confrontations between alienated youth and the establishment.

Because of Miss Mann's direct-address technique, the three people on the stage are more immediately in contact with the audience than with each other. Their attitude is challenging and at times accusatory. To a point, the anguished, minutely detailed recitals arouse the spectator's sympathy for the affected trio and for the larger cross-section of Americans they represent. But with its repetitions and intermittent emotional outbursts, "Still Life" deteriorates into a kind of clinical exercise.

Notwithstanding the sincerity of Miss Mann's concern and compassion, and the relevance of her subject, the verbatim record grows numbing rather than moving. The players respond intensely to the verismo style of the true-life revelations. But crying actors don't necessa rily move an audience to tears.

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