FORGET THE FACT that "Playing for Time," Arthur Miller's drama about a women's orchestra in a concentration camp, began as a television movie starring Vanessa Redgrave. Put it right out of your head.
The Studio Theater's presentation of his newly adapted play is a triumph for the theater. The physical presence of the actors -- we see their inhumanly cramped discomfort in a fetid boxcar, their scarred, shaven heads, feel their music and their fear -- affords an unavoidable immediacy that film can't approach.
Miller's episodic script is directed with swift, bold strokes by Joy Zinoman. Attention must be paid to Russell Metheny's set, remarkable for its simple versatility and pointed absence of color, and to the stark shafts of light designed by Daniel MacLean Wagner.
Miller's adaptation still centers on Fania Fenelon, a French nightclub singer whose talent saves her life and others' after she is chosen for the orchestra at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Studio's acting ensemble is cemented by a trio of strong actresses. With her sad, soulful beauty and her warm, well-worn Piaf-like voice, Jacqueline Bertrand conveys Fenelon's almost saintly resignation and charisma.
As Marianne, wraithlike Kathryn Kelley's initial frailty hardens visibly as her character becomes obsessed with self-preservation, sinking to stealing and selling sex for sustenance. Sara C. Marshall digs into the role of brusque, volatile conductor Alma Rose with such ferocity she seems to indeed be "playing for her life."
Much has been made of the fact that 13 of the 24 cast members agreed to shave their heads for this five-week role. Their sacrifice seems essential; shorn of their hair, they are shorn of their sex, their dignity, their humanity. When Kelley's hair is pulled back for shearing, she utters a wordless cry; the image of humiliation is vivid and moving.
Some members of Zinoman's ensemble are more skillful as actresses than as musicians, and the sometimes inexpert playing strikes an errant note; as the script points out, a musician's minor error is a terrifying life-or- death matter.
Choosing music as his metaphor for the slow death of the soul in the concentration camp is Miller's masterstroke. There is a bitter irony when the orchestra must play the "Ode to Joy," as prisoners are marched unknowingly to the gas chambers. Zinoman orchestrates a quietly shattering moment as the women spontaneously sing "The Man I Love" around the piano. Their faces glow with the elation of memory, then turn suddenly ashen as they remember where they are. A heartrendingly sorrowful aria from Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" speaks more eloquently of loss than any line in the script.
Never free from the tenuousness of their situation, these women face the terror of "selection," and the knowledge that the other prisoners despise them and view them as conspirators. These women are in a morally torturous position -- though their talent keeps them alive from day to day, their music -- "the holiest activity of mankind" -- also soothes their Nazi oppressors.
It's a crushing moment when Dr. Joseph Mengele, visibly moved by their playing, says their music is "a consolation that feeds the spirit, strengthens us for this difficult work of ours."
PLAYING FOR TIME -- At the Studio Theater through October 20.