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Stage Review : Powerful Themes At Large In 'Stillborn'

November 28, 1986|LAWRENCE CHRISTON

In Paul Van Zyl's "Stillborn," a new play at the Skylight written in collaboration with Andrew Buckland, a young man named Derek arrives at Mike's apartment somewhere in South Africa to "fetch Evelyn," Mike's sister, for a date.

While waiting for her to appear, they strike up a conversation. Derek is diffident but composed, his First Date manners in place. Mike looks contrastingly strung out and is agitated to the point of near-rowdiness. Soon we learn that Mike is an Army veteran showing sure signs of the post-combat stress syndrome we've seen in many American vets of the Vietnam war--the psychological disarray that follows having put your life on the line for a cause you don't believe in (the South African government sends its Army conscripts to fight its border wars), and the guilt-ridden entrapment of recalling the butchery of war and sensing that, no matter which way you turn, you're somewhere in the wrong.

There are some powerful themes at large in "Stillborn" including a suggestion of the ambivalence of men and combat, but the play is written in an allusive, elliptical style more in tune with mannered American naturalism than the passionate clarity characteristic of the best of South African theater.

The play doesn't give us a lot of information, on any level; its dramatic tensions never focus; and its ideas and characters are sketchily delivered (Evelyn's protracted non-appearance soon becomes a transparent device for getting the guys to talk). It should be made clearer, for example, that conscription applies to every white South African male in yet another of the many ways apartheid claims its own young. Then we could see how deeply Mike and Derek (who has been drafted) are sucked into South Africa's existential morass.

The actors do as well as they can under the circumstances (Van Zyl directs), Joseph Kane's Derek having the best of it because his situation engenders a certain wary constraint. With little to hang on to, David O. Cameron's portrayal of Mike looks borrowed from some old Vic Morrow "Combat" episodes.

Their accents are impeccable, incidentally (Val Ewell is the very good dialect coach), as is Tony Adbachi's ersatz set design--the South African middle class has been so isolated that it assumes whatever local designers and merchants dump on it as the latest in taste.

Performances Saturdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. at 1816 1/2 N. Vermont, (213) 466-1767. Runs indefinitely.

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