The show takes place in the setting of a union hall. An angularly built young woman in jeans, a sheep-skin-lined jacket and Western-style hat strides purposefully onto the stage.

It is a startling entry. Just before that entrance, the last in a series of slides -- a kind of snapshot life history flashed on the side of the stage -- had shown the late Karen Silkwood in identical clothing.

"Silkwood," a one-woman show examining the life and death of a former plutonium worker who has become a martyr to the union and the antinuclear movements, was performed last night at the theater of the George Meany Labor Center, 10000 New Hampshire Ave., Silver Spring. It will be repeated tonight.

The Silkwood case has been so much in the headlines, in court and on television as a docudrama that it is difficult to separate the stage treatment for the real-life story and controversy.

It is a play with a message of union advocacy. But "Silkwood" also is good theater, with a tautly written script and an arresting performance by Jehane Dyllan.

From the moment that she strides on the stage, Dyllan gives flesh-and-blood character to her portrayal of Silkwood. She speaks in a broad, flat Southwest twang to match the flat lands of Texas and Oklahoma where Silkwood lived.

The setting is the last meeting that Silkwood had with other members of her local before she drove away to meet another union official and a New York Times reporter on a November night in 1974. She died in a car crash soon after.

When the play begins, we meet Silkwood as she arrives early for the union meeting. She goes over her report on negotiations for a health and safety clause in the union contract. Then the play begins to mix past and present as Silkwood reenacts memories of the events that led her to become a union militant.

Dyllan deftly carries on dialogues with her mother, fellow workers, union colleagues, bosses and lovers during her show. She makes us see Karen as a young girl growing up in a small Texas town, as a teen-age wife, as a young woman who loses her three children in divorce, and as a lively, earthy woman who enjoys good times, sports-cars racing, motorcycles, the companionship of men and union fellowship in the nearby bar.

Dyllan, who lives here in Washington and trained at the Boston University School of Fine Arts, cooperated on the script with Susan Holleran. Bobbi Ausubel, who directed "Silkwood," is active on the Boston theater scene.

"Silkwood" will move to Baltimore and Richmond later to begin a national tour. It is produced by Union Sister Productions, formed last year to produce theater about and for working women.