Several years ago, playwright Michael Cristofer read an account of a convicted Nazi war criminal who, when released from serving 14 years of a life sentence, went to live in a French village. When threats failed to force the man's departure, his house was burned down by hooded vigilantes and he perished in the fire.
The incident became the central subject of Mr. Cristofer's ''Black Angel.'' First staged by Gordon Davidson at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1978, the tragic drama is now being presented here by the Circle Repertory Company, with Mr. Davidson again directing.
''Black Angel'' is a searching and at times a searing work. It considers not merely the nature of guilt but the nature of revenge - and the guilt that may lurk beneath the surface of revenge.
The intense play begins 30 years after World War II as Martin Engel (Josef Sommer) is building a small house among the woods of the French countryside he had visited in boyhood. With the war and imprisonment far behind him, Engel is hoping it will be ''a place to begin again and find the roots of life.'' Here as elsewhere in this memory play, Mr. Cristofer effectively mingles various techniques, including first-person narration, lyric passages, and realistic dialogues.
Engel is befriended by the cheerful, unobtrusively curious village mayor (Tom Aldredge). But the shadow of things to come begins manifesting itself in the suspicious attitude of the local hardware-store proprietor (Burke Pearson). Shortly thereafter, an investigative reporter (Jonathan Bolt) for a communist newspaper identifies Engel as the Nazi officer responsible for the slaughter of 247 people in a nearby community. Although Engel has served his time for the long-ago atrocity, a group of hooded vigilantes begins a terror campaign that ends fatally (on Bastille Day) for the mayor as well as for Engel.
''Black Angel'' moves forward with the inevitability of classic tragedy. Its symbolism is specific and universal. Engel (the word is German for ''angel'') is not merely a man holding out against intimidation and threats of violence. Having accepted responsibility for the crimes committed by men under his command , he determines to accept whatever fate may have in store. Even during imprisonment, he refused to lodge the legal appeals that brought many imprisoned war criminals their early release.
On the other hand, the arson and murder committed by the vigilantes is simply revenge in the form of mob violence. As Engel's wife laments at the end of the play, ''With love, the chance of survival is very slight. With hate, you can go on forever.''
''Black Angel'' in no way condones atrocities, however or whenever or by whomever they may be committed. Rather it asks the spectator to ponder the impulses and motivations behind such criminal acts. Daily the information media hammer home the relevance of Mr. Cristofer's eloquent play. Reflecting on it, I recalled the words ''Father Forgive'' engraved into the stonework behind the charred cross at the ruins of Coventry Cathedral.
Mr. Sommer skillfully presents the inner conflicts and dilemmas of a man who returns to the scene of youthful joys and romance that is also near the scene of his acknowledged war crime. Wisely, the actor avoids playing for sympathy. (By coincidence, ''Black Angel'' has arrived at a time when C.P. Taylor's ''Good,'' at the Booth Theater, is offering a very different specimen of the Nazi mentality.)
As the girl who becomes Engel's wife, Mary McDonnell appears first as the romantic and complacent 18-year-old daughter of a Nazi war profiteer. In the course of the play, Miss McDonnell traces Simone Engel's transformation into a drained and disillusioned woman. Mr. Aldredge gives a dryly humorous performance as the raffish, philosophical, and courageous mayor. Robert LuPone contributes some chilling moments as a contemptuous G.I. who beats up Engel at the time of the German's arrest. The incident does, however, raise the question of whether this unquestionably important play perhaps attempted to touch too many bases.
Besides costuming the production, designer Sally Jacobs has created the scenery, placing the framework of Engel's unfinished house in a brooding, black-forest setting. The lighting is by John Gleason. The Chuck London Media-Stewart Werner sound effects range from noise of battle to songs of birds.