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The world may have been green, way back when—a bucolic paradise of blue skies, fresh air, and clear water—but man proves to be the snake in his own Eden every time, like the hymnodist's description of Ceylon, where "every prospect pleases,/And only man is vile." Dazzled as a boy by nature's bounty of fish, flesh, and fowl, the chef of this short 1996 dramatic fable by Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaikin had longed to become a cook, "changing these gifts of the earth into food." But, in a parable that seems ancient as that of Cain and Abel, he ends up perverting his culinary gifts to fulfill a centuries-old family vendetta over a poisoned mule by poisoning his cousin—"my last friend on earth," or an innocent stranger whom he mistakes for him—with a dinner of quail with pear amaretto sauce, plus a side of envenomed potatoes.

There is a limpid beauty to this fateful synthetic legend, with its leisurely image-rich poetic language, staged like a stately fairy tale by Kirsten Brandt, the mythic mood enhanced by Ruff Yeager's original New Age piano music, which he plays during the performance. Nick Fouch's scenic design is appropriately stark and elegant: a single stone prison wall and spare, clean furnishings. Jennifer Setlow's muted lighting slowly fades and rises while a little patch of sky through the cell window slit evolves opalescently. Mary Larson's costumes are nicely understated.

Jim Chovick plays the Old Man—the chef now imprisoned and awaiting execution for the murder, unable to eat or sleep—with straightforward simplicity; his weariness, his bewilderment, his denial of the dark human forces that have twisted his life and his vocation visible on the surface. Laura Lee Juliano as the Interviewer—for the play consists only of their jailhouse dialogues—slowly reveals her motivations, her vegetarianism, her patience, her own hidden links to the tale. It concludes hopefully, as she helps him prepare a final meal of mango almond chutney—all the ingredients lovingly displayed—and she at last waves a white scarf in the air which, as it was foretold, ends the long cycle of killing. It is a beautiful thought.

"When the World Was Green, A Chef's Fable," presented by Sledgehammer Theatre at St. Cecilia's Playhouse, 1620 Sixth Ave., San Diego. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Feb. 12-Mar. 13. $15-$25. (619) 544-1484.

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