Through the ages, writers great and small have attempted to describe the insanity of war and its devastating effect on the individual soldier. GALA Hispanic Theatre's production of Argentine writer Rodolfo Walsh's absurdist play "La Granada" ("The Hand Grenade") explores the theme using a startling and effective symbol--a lowly soldier holding a hand grenade that will explode if he removes his thumb from the detonator.

Rich with black humor, "La Granada" engages its audience on an intellectual rather than an emotional level. The plight of Pvt. Anibal Gutierrez, deprived of sleep, haunted by ghosts and living with imminent death, is by turns funny, pathetic and tragic.

"Don't you realize that since the day you were born, this moment has been searching for you and you for it," Fuselli, the clownish expert bomb detonator, tells Gutierrez. "Before this moment you were a nobody; now you are a great tragic man." Eyes filling with tears, Gutierrez responds mournfully, "But I prefer going back to being who I was."

The ultimate absurdity occurs in the last act, when Gutierrez finds himself on trial in a military court accused of being a spy engaged in sabotage. According to the prosecutor, he is only pretending that the grenade is going to explode.

Produced in Buenos Aires in 1965, "La Granada" is an indictment of the military juntas that ruled Argentina throughout the 1960s and '70s and will resonate with many local Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Chileans, Colombians and other Latin Americans who have fled civil wars, political turmoil and repression.

For this, the play's first production outside Argentina, GALA founder and Artistic Director Hugo Medrano approached Jose Carrasquillo, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, to direct. Carrasquillo's handling makes the play more cutting-edge than the original. He universalizes the colloquial Argentine Spanish and streamlines the production. In effect, five actors play 11 characters.

Medrano doubles as the pompous Lt. Strauss and the soldier's pathetic father. Luis Caram elicits laughter as the effeminate Sgt. Sosa and dread as the pontificating prosecutor, Capt. Aldao. Jaime Carrillo as Gutierrez captures a full range of emotion: dread, fear, self-pity, remorse and courage. GALA regular Vera Soltero impresses with the ease with which she becomes Fuselli, the soldier's fiancee, his mother and the judge who presides over the court-martial.

The stark set--a black rectangular platform with an upturned corner that resembles a flying carpet--adds to the shifting sense of reality and functions as slide, staircase, dance floor, battlefield and courtroom. Spotlights seem to appear magically and capture the soldier's shifting emotions. Unfortunately, problems with the simultaneous translation equipment made the play difficult going for non-Spanish speakers.

Walsh once said of his plays, "I am not interested in writing or making realistic theater. I write theater that alludes to the realistic through the use of powerful symbols." "La Granada" is for those who will appreciate theater as symbol.

La Granada, by Rodolfo Walsh, in Spanish with simultaneous English translation. At GALA Hispanic Theatre, 1625 Park Rd. NW, through Oct. 24. Call 202-234-7174.

CAPTION: Luis Caram and Hugo Medrano in GALA Hispanic Theatre's symbol-laden production of "La Granada" ("The Hand Grenade").