2006_11_arts_wtm.pngJude Narita’s solo show Walk the Mountain, currently running at Theater for the New City, delves into the horrors endured by women who survived the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge. The text of the play is inspired by interviews Narita conducted with Vietnamese and Cambodian women; throughout the performance she plays a wide variety of roles to create a detailed portrait of human suffering.

The centerpiece of the spare set, designed by Jerry Browning, is a screen on which facts, quotes and images from Vietnam are projected. Most of the information shown there is not new to anyone who has read a little about the Vietnam War, but the sheer scale of the devastation is so great that we can never really be reminded enough. General Westomoreland’s sickening statement (from the documentary Hearts and Minds) still staggers the mind, no matter how many times it’s read: “The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.” And the photos of Agent Orange’s hideous legacy, which still causes crippling deformities generations later, ought to be required viewing for every American.

The play begins with a myth about the origin of Vietnam; using interpretive dance and spoken word, Narita evokes an almost mystical mood to tell the tale of the mountain and dragon gods who begat the Vietnamese people. She then shares a brief tribute to the famous female warriors who bravely fought off Vietnam’s various invaders over the years. By placing the American war in this broader historical context, Narita is able to convey a sense of the inner strength that existed long before – and after – the U.S. became involved.

We are then introduced to a variety of characters who illustrate the many different ways that the war irrevocably altered lives. Narita honors each character with a deep empathy and seemingly effortless grace; they include a Vietnamese freedom-fighter imprisoned in a tiger cage, a distraught mother mourning her dead sons and a Cambodian refugee moved to tears by the vast food on hand in American supermarkets.

But while Walk the Mountain is very heartfelt and well-intentioned, the production suffers from terribly slow pacing. There is too much dead air between and during Narita’s monologues; while the goal may have been to create an atmosphere of quiet reflection, the overall effect is regrettably lethargic.

Still, there were a few moments when one can sense the potential for a deeply cathartic theatrical experience. One of Narita’s more compelling characters is a doctor who tells us about the amputations performed without anesthetic, which was scarce due to the U.S. embargo of Vietnam (finally lifted in 1994). The doctor leads the audience on a (virtual) tour through the room where deformed fetuses are kept in jars, pointing out the babies born with no faces, with eyes on their stomachs and hearts outside their bodies.

It’s a scene that could have amounted to a shrill indictment, but Narita portrays the kindly doctor with a subtlety that lets the powerful text speak for itself. Unfortunately, such chilling moments are diluted by the production’s listless directing. There’s no easy way to dramatize the millions of victims of the Vietnam War, but Walk the Mountain is certainly commendable for trying and periodically succeeding.

Walk the Mountain continues through December 3rd at Theater for the New City [155 1st Avenue]. Tickets are $20. [“Pay what you can” night is on Tuesday.]