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Ariel Dorfman, the Chilean-American poet, playwright, novelist and activist, is not an excavator of happy stories.

His work has been chiefly concerned with peeling back layers of government and military secrecy to reveal painful tales of the personal, political and physical exploitation.

A production of Dorfman's messily poetic play "Widows," very much in that vein, opened Thursday night at the Manny Fried Playhouse in a production by the Subversive Theatre Collective.

Dorfman's piece rambles at great length while reflecting on the trials faced by a group of Chilean women, whose husbands, sons and fathers have vanished under that country's military dictatorship. As directed by Kurt Schneiderman and acted by a large and glaringly ineffective cast, a show already overwrought to the breaking point becomes almost unbearably plodding and tedious.

No one can argue with the significant nature of Dorfman's message or the honesty of Schneiderman's intentions. But there is a convincing argument to be made against producing a show for which a theater company is so obviously unequipped as it concerns acting talent. That shortcoming becomes especially evident when applied to Dorfman's spotty source material, which ranges from one lilting monologue to the next, never achieving the ease of genuine dialogue.

Exchanges between an army captain (Victor Morales) and his subordinates (played by Julian Perez and Justin Fiordaliso) fall flat, as do the interminable lamentations of Dorfman's widows, all of whom pine for the return of their men. The piece brims with simple and beautiful poetic sentiments ("Living, dead, give us our men," one widow insists. "And if they are murdered, give us their murderers. It is justice.") that never resolve themselves into dramatic substance.

Schneiderman, in his opening speech, called Dorfman's piece "the best play I've ever read." This statement points up the difficulty of translating poetic beauty on the printed page into the stuff of engrossing drama. It's a transfiguration that can work seamlessly with Eugene O'Neill or Tennessee Williams, but that "Widows," which Dorfman adapted from his own novel, baldly fails to achieve.

Still, the importance of work like Dorfman's and the imperative for theater companies like Subversive to produce it is difficult to overstate. Long after the cases of bloodthirsty dictators like Chile's Augusto Pinochet have left the courts, and long after the murderers themselves have perished, it becomes the task of artists like Dorfman and Schneiderman to continue the prosecution for future generations and distant communities. It is in this way that the lessons from these atrocities translate themselves, little by little, into measurable justice.

But Dorfman's play approaches this task in roundabout ways that only serve to splinter his message into disparate pieces. Subversive's production only muddles that message further.

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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"Widows"

Drama presented through Nov. 7 by the Subversive Theatre Collective in the Manny Fried Playhouse, Great Arrow Building.

For information, call 408-7337 or visit www.subversivetheatre.org.