Still Life

Veteran reveals his abominable behavior, but his wife says it gets even worse…

By Andrew Andrews

Piper Patterson, Doug Harris and Danielle Skraastad in Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company’s collaboration of Emily Mann’s Still Life, directed by Jade King Carroll. Original production photo by A-Key (Takaaki Ando).

Mark saw some terrible shit—did some terrible shit—in Vietnam.

When he got home, he did even more—this time, to his wife, Cheryl.

In 1978, playwright Emily Mann interviewed Mark, Cheryl, and Mark’s mistress, Nadine.

Now, sitting behind a conference table below projected photographs of his tour of duty, Mark talks about what he saw, and what he did—not only overseas, but back home in Minnesota.

On the left, Cheryl talks about what Mark does now, including references to jars he fills with violent little dioramas.

“I came across this jar,” she explains. “He had a naked picture of me in there, cut out to the form, tied to a stake with a string.”

Mark is a artist now. That’s how he met Nadine.

On the right, Nadine talks about what attracted her to Mark.

“He’s so honest he doesn’t hide anything,” she says with admiration. “He told me he beat her very badly. He doesn’t know if he can recover that relationship.”

Originally produced in 1980, Mann’s documentary drama won an Obie award in 1981, and has since been performed around the world.

Emily Mann and Jade King Carroll. Original photos by Matt Pilsner and Mical Hutson, respectively.

Still Life is not for the faint of heart.

Instead of glorifying warfare like an epic movie filmed from the trenches, Still Life examines its aftermath on those who survive it: the psychological damage to those unfortunate enough to have fought, and the physical abuse to those unfortunate enough to love them.

Documenting the horrors of the Vietnam War with gruesome photos and personal recollection, the play’s panel discussion format holds the audience tightly at an arm’s length, never pulling you into the story with direct conflict, but never letting you escape its agitation.

Anyone with combat experience is sure to see a piece of themselves in Mark: in the things he doesn’t want to talk about, and the difficulties he’s had adapting to civilian life.

Any victim of domestic violence is sure to relate to Cheryl: in the dedication to someone you care about despite the horrendous way they treat you; in the struggle between supporting and understanding the love of your life, or protecting your own safety.

And anyone who’s ever had a crush on someone can identify with Nadine’s clouded veneration.

I did find the format of this play to be a little detracting, making it difficult for me to feel invested enough in the characters to enjoy the performance to its fullest. My partner, on the other hand, thought its novel approach was intriguing, so it’s anyone’s guess what you’d make of it.

Regardless, it’s absolutely wonderful that Ancram Opera House continues to bring non-traditional theatre to the Hudson Valley. If you appreciate the genre, you owe it to yourself to catch this production.

4

Andrew Andrews attended Still Life at Ancram Opera House in Ancram on Sunday, October 2, 2022 @ 2:00pm to write this review.