"The Ascent of Mt. Fuji" was quite a revelation when Arena Stage introduced it to America in 1975 - a contemporary Soviet play with political bite but no propaganda. Its characters were intensely human Communists arguing with each other about intensely human rights. There wasn't a tractor in sight.
The play's enthusiastic reception in the Soviet Union two years earlier made it seem even more of a marvel here. Detente was still a sweet young thing, but its future looked bright if such a play, which passionately defends intellectual freedom, could be a success in both Washington and Moscow.
Detente has aged, not always gracefully, since 1975, but "The Ascent of Mt. Fujii" is still going strong. Tonight the play opens the last season of "Hollywood Television Theater" on PBS in fascinating fashion. It begins at 8 on Channels 26, 53 and 22.
"Mt. Fuji," by Chingiz Aitmatov and Kaltai Mukhamedzhanov, is set far away from Mt. Fuji, Moscow, or practically anywhere else - in Kirghizia, a remote Soviet state near the Himalayas. Yet its characters do not seem remote at all. Their marital and professional insecurities are all too familiar, and they present their problems to each other as if they were in an American encounter group.
Four men, three of their wives and the men's old schoolteacher have gathered for a weekend outling atop a local hill that has been dubbed "Mt. Fuji" by one of the women. The men fought together in World War II after leaving school, and they pretend to be great comrades. But they're not, and a fifth member of their band, Sabur, is absent. One of the four told the authorities about a pacifist poem Sabur wrote during the war, and Sabur has suffered for it, psychologically, ever since.
The story comes out in bits and pieces. Recriminations fly, and just when an uneasy peace seems possible, the picnickers themselves are involved in an accident for which they must parcel out responsibility. The old issue comes to life.
Norman Lloyd's production - with Avery Schrieber, Andrea Marcovicci and Joseph Campanella as the most prominent actors - is not significantly different from Arena's. Television has not been used to take the play outdoors. But the play has plenty of fresh air as it is, giving us an uncommonly clear view of a closed society and bringing it surprisingly close to home.