"All Mark did was, he brought the war home. Nobody wanted to look at it." Though much of Emily Mann's 1981 play Still Life traffics in post-Vietnam America -- ambivalence about returning vets, budding feminism, My Lai -- much could be ripped from Friday's headlines. Once again, the boys are returning (not fast enough) and a nation is ill-prepared to accommodate them.
The pains of readjustment are sharply rendered in Still Life, which might be described as an emotional strip-tease in triplicate. In three overlapping monologues (to unseen shrinks?), ex-Marine Mark (Erik Potempa); his estranged wife, Cheryl (Heather E. Cunningham); and his mistress Nadine (Kristen Vaughan) muse on Mark's confused state, shedding layers of obfuscation and self-deception as they go. Mark, backed by slides of his tour of duty, is tormented and unpredictably violent. Cheryl, her second child on the way, is lost and resentful. Nadine, a sophisticated free spirit, worships Mark without losing sight of the rest of her life. Details about their interlocking lives -- a prison stretch, drug dealing, alcoholism in their families -- bubble up spontaneously, never neatly resolved. But then, how could they be?
Still Life lives up to its title: three talking heads, two tables, and virtually no action. Yet the talk is compelling. If Potempa's Mark feels a little on the surface (he has the working-class accent and the angst right, but what's underneath?), Cunningham and Vaughan are marvels, both subtly defying expectations about their characters' roles in Mark's life. Even in repose, and there's a lot of it, each stays in character, forcing us to confront Cheryl's bitterness and Nadine's complicated earth-mother makeup even when they're not front and center. Director Ric Sechrest smartly varies the rhythms of the characters' delivery, making them sound spontaneous as they ponder a bleak, nearly hopeless landscape. "It will happen again," Cheryl bitterly intones near the end -- and boy, she got that right.
Presented by Retro Productions
at 78th Street Theatre Lab, 236 W. 78th St., NYC.
Feb. 16-March 3. Tue., Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m.
(212) 352-3101 or www.theatermania.com.