Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden has all the ingredients for a rich, juicy drama: three complicated characters, mystery, revenge and Big Questions (Such as "What is justice?"). Based on Dorfman's experiences during Pinochet's seventeen-year dictatorship in Chile, the play speaks from an authentic place of pain, voiced by the character Paulina Salas (Pamela Banning), a torture survivor who continues to live in fear. As the audience enters, Paulina is onstage in near-darkness, waiting for her husband to come home to dinner. This sense of a world already set in motion works well, creating anticipation. But the opening moments of the play -- Paulina running around in the darkness doing something mysterious -- lead the audience to ask the first of many Distracting Little Questions: "Why can't we see what she's doing?"
Paulina's troubled marriage is evident from the moment her husband, Gerardo (Richard Strelinger), arrives. He's both upset about a flat tire (which caused his lateness) and excited that he's been appointed to a Human Rights Commission that will investigate the former government's wrongdoings. When she reacts angrily to news about the limited powers of this commission, Gerardo treats Paulina like a child, calling her "silly, silly girl, my baby." Paulina's fear and anger grow in this opening scene, which should crackle, lighting the sparks that fuel the rest of the play. Instead it fizzles. Paulina erupts and attacks Gerardo, but it doesn't seem believable.
The main plot complication arrives in the character of Roberto Miranda, played by a much-too-young-looking John Shepherd. Roberto appears to be a Good Samaritan, having helped Gerardo fix his tire. Paulina eavesdrops on the men's conversation, and after Roberto agrees to spend the night, she once again runs around doing something mysterious that we can't see. After wondering, "Why are we sitting here in the dark for so long?" we hear her club Roberto on the head, drag him to a chair and tie him up. When morning comes, she reveals to Gerardo that she believes Roberto is the doctor who tortured her. She wants his confession.
Roberto proclaims his innocence, and the rest of the play is a series of shifting alliances, with Gerardo caught between wanting to support his wife and wanting to support human rights in all circumstances. Strelinger and Banning are most compelling in a scene where she confronts him about infidelity and he acknowledges aloud for the first time that she was tortured and repeatedly raped. Shepherd does a nice job maintaining Roberto's innocence even as Paulina seems to have him cornered. We have to draw our own conclusions at the end -- it's not clear whether Paulina kills him or not, and the epilogue only adds to Dorfman's deliberate confusion.
Hydeware's noble effort in producing this play includes a lobby display with information about current human-rights abuses and the groups working to stop them. While the picture of a skewered man was a bit much for me, I applaud the focus on social justice. We need artists and plays that ask Big Questions. The problem here is that too many distracting questions sidetrack Dorfman's drama. In addition to confusing sound and lighting choices, the biggest little question of all is: Why doesn't Roberto escape? In real life, he could have easily gotten out of the flimsy bonds holding him. In addition, he was left alone several times on stage and could have moved to his knees and crawled out the door. Late in the play, after he's signed a confession that may or may not be true, he's set free and Paulina threatens him with a gun. She waves it so close to him that he could have reached out and taken it away from her.
Such crucial mistakes undermine the dramatic muscle of the play. We have to believe that Roberto is in real danger, that Paulina is ready to do anything to keep him from escaping, and that Gerardo is truly caught in a life-and-death dilemma. Instead we get an obviously staged series of scenes, flabby instead of taut.
Correction published 2/4/04: In the original version of this story's subheadline, we misidentified the company that staged the play. The above version reflects the corrected text.