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THEATER REVIEW 'STILL LIFE' : 3 Views of Vietnam : A play examines the effects of the war on a veteran, his wife and his mistress. The overstated theme is alienation.

February 27, 1992|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Marlon Brando's Col. Kurtz (by way of Joseph Conrad) succinctly summed it up in "Apocalypse Now."

The horror.

Far worse than the atrocities of war is the recognition of their origins: the darkness within the human heart that makes a bitter mockery of civilized trappings.

It's a recognition that leaves deep scars, as the struggles of returning veterans can attest.

Exploring these issues in the aftermath of the Vietnam War is the focus of Emily Mann's "Still Life," a theatrical work with the reality-based effect of a documentary.

Mann condensed her 1978 play from more than 140 hours of interviews conducted with a Vietnam War veteran, his wife and his mistress. Through carefully selected excerpts, she put together a work of disturbing realism.

All three characters appear on stage seated at a long conference table. And each delivers a story in monologue form without acknowledging the others' presence.

As you might guess, alienation is the predominant tone.

"I'm just passing through society now," claims Mark (K. Michael Healey), the veteran who navigates a tortuous course of personal reminiscences to bring himself to the point where he can tell us about the terrible thing he did in Vietnam.

All Mark can do now is make art with violent themes. "I can't watch war movies and when a car backfires, I hit the deck. . . . I'm terrified there's this karma I've built up for hurting."

His story becomes an example of the depths to which we can sink when social inhibitions are removed. "This country had all these rules and regulations--and then they removed them," Mark says. Vietnam became the ultimate carte blanche and, as he puts it, "People who were into it really got a chance to know ."

But before we're overcome with sympathy, his wife (Angela Perry) warns us that "he blames it all on the war--don't let him!" And she recounts their horribly dysfunctional marriage and the pattern of abuse that stretched back before the war, revealing the streak of brutality in Mark that made his ultimate abdication of human values all too believable.

Not that she doesn't share complicity for their failed marriage. She is an often whiny former drug addict who admits, "I wanted kids but not the husband that went with it."

No wonder Mark sought solace in the arms of his middle-aged mistress (Meredith McMinn), who tolerates his excesses with an air of martyred contempt. "Men," she says. "I have to take care of them and they're all cripples."

All three performers cover an impressive range of emotional territory. Director Frank Condon's staging retains the confessional simplicity of the script, but augments it with harrowing war photos. Subtlety is definitely not on this evening's menu. Only occasionally does the message teeter into sermon (playing Holly Near's "No More Genocide in Our Name" overstates the implicit, for example).

This is far from the definitive statement on the Vietnam veteran experience. Digging for universal causes in the individual stories of these losers yields a vague diagnosis at best. They're too mired in specifics to generalize. Nor is Mann holding out anything more than platitudes by way of a cure ("If we all had said 'no,' it couldn't have happened").

But in documenting the symptoms, "Still Life" is a work of chilling clinical precision.

It's an earnest effort to call attention to some unpleasant truths. And last week's revelations of higher Iraqi civilian casualties in the Gulf War underscores the fact that those truths are always with us.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"Still Life" will be performed through Saturday at the UC Santa Barbara Studio Theatre at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Ticket prices are $8.50. For reservations or information, call 893-3535.

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