Ancram’s “Still Life” Still Challenges and Rewards

ANCRAM – Ancram Opera House, in a co-production with Playhouse Creatures, is presenting a searing revival of “Still Life,” Emily Mann’s 1981 documentary play of three midwestern folks surviving the trauma of Viet Nam and its aftermath. The play was originally three monologues comprised of interviews the playwright conducted with her subjects who she met in Minnesota in 1978, but the interviews are now interspersed between the three in a fugue of interconnected accounts making the play.

The audience has to do some work in piecing together the story and gleaning the details from the characters, who are all seated at a long table facing the audience in an examination room style, with glasses of water in front of them. Mark is seated center with a slide projector to his right, which he will use to increasingly disturbing effect throughout the play. His young wife Cheryl is to his right and his, slightly older than him, mistress Nadine is to his left. Director Jade King Carroll keeps the testimonies flowing with few hitches, remarkable work by the company on this 90-minute piece.

Piper Patterson, Doug Harris, Danielle Skraastad/A-Key

The three will tell of Mark’s relation to them and the effect of his Viet Nam service on him and them. Cheryl is guarded from the beginning, even shielding her face and body from us in the opening moments of the play. Nadine is open and challenging, everything about her seems pitched forward to meet what’s coming…like someone jumping out of a plane. Mark is intense and analytical, hammering points home and occasionally turning to slide projections for assistance or retreating from the stage altogether to take cover. The stories that come out of the three about the soldier’s return detail incidences of domestic abuse, alcoholism, substance abuse, criminal activity and emotional cruelty. The war continues for those traumatized and untreated, and spreads to all he interacts with.

Cheryl, in a deeply moving performance by Piper Patterson, is striving for some semblance of normalcy being a young mother. She can sound like anyone’s mother railing against cleaning up the basement, caring for the dog in the backyard, or the “spaghetti night” dinner party. They sound like ordinary complaints but then the stories take one horrific step more and you realize the shocking conditions she is trying to raise a family in.

Danielle Skraastad plays Nadine, and it is always worth the trip to Ancram to catch a performance of hers. Her last appearance at AOH was in Tony Kushner’s “Homebody” and won her a Berkshire Theatre Critics Association Award for Best Solo Performance. This one is a doozy. Nadine is the most forthright, level-headed and open of the three. Her acerbic takes provide much-needed humor to the evening. It’s only when you consider her relation to the other two that this businesswoman, mother of three who sleeps with her shoes on doesn’t quite add up.

Doug Harris/A-Key

Mark, in a terrific performance by Doug Harris, is haunted from the beginning, and tells us he has done terrible things. The evening is headed to the monologue that tells us what Daddy did in the war, but it’s less an expiation of guilt than a coming to terms. The play asserts its story in a refreshing no-nonsense manner demanding accountability. No one is let off the hook and we all carry the sins for atrocities committed in our name.

This is a thorny, accomplished revival of a singular play of the Viet Nam War by a giant in American theater. Drop all your plans this weekend and grab one of these tickets.

Through 10/9 @ Ancram Opera House

Tickets: www.ancramoperahouse.org or 518-329-0114

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