Ariel Dorfma n's political play, Death and the Maiden gets a tightly directed production at Victory Gardens Theatre. Dorfman, a Chilean writer and now a US citizen, wrote the play in 1991, soon after the 17-year rule of dictator Augusto Pinochet ended. (It was Pinochet's coup that overthrew the democratically elected Salvador Allende on Chile's September 11 in 1973.)
Victory Gardens' artistic director, Chay Yew, directs this taut political drama, set in the present in "a country that is probably Chile but could be any country that has given itself a democratic government just after a long period of dictatorship."
Dorfman's three-act script is performed as a 90-minute one-act with three characters. Sandra Oh, known for her TV role in Grey's Anatomy, is an experienced stage actor as well. She gives a strong performance as Paulina Salas, who was kidnapped, tortured and raped during the reign of the dictator. Years later, she is fearful and haunted by the past. Her husband, Gerardo Escobar (Raul Castillo), is a lawyer who has just been appointed to lead a commission to investigate the criminals and torturers of the past.
The setting is the Escobars' beach house. As the play opens, the light over the ocean is fading and Paulina sits alone, with dinner ready on the table. She is startled by the noise of a car in the distance and goes to the sideboard to get a gun, then hides behind the drapes. It's her husband returning from the city in someone else's car. He had a flat tire and is rescued by Roberto Miranda (John Judd) who stops to help-and then brings him home. Roberto agrees to return Sunday for a drink. In fact, he returns later that night to return Gerardo's spare tire and stays overnight.
When Paulina hears Roberto's voice, she is convinced he is the doctor who directed her torture and raped her repeatedly years ago. Even though she was blindfolded throughout the ordeal, she will never forget the voice. Her torturer seemed at first to be a civilized man; he played Schubert's quartet, "Death and the Maiden," while she was being held.
While Roberto sleeps, Paulina ties him up with her stockings and a rope and gags him with her panties. She finds a tape of the Schubert quartet in his car and plays it, although she has not been able to listen to that music since her ordeal. Gerardo protests that even if Roberto is guilty, he should receive a trial, that her actions will have terrible consequences. But Paulina is not convinced; she will conduct the trial.
In the second half of the play, it's clear that the fearful Paulina has gained strength and confidence and is now in control, gun in hand. None of Gerardo's arguments dissuade her that Roberto was her torturer. "It's not only the voice I recognize, Gerardo. I recognize the skin. And the smell. I recognize his skin."
Roberto, now with his gag removed, insists he is not guilty of the crimes and that Paulina is mentally unbalanced. Roberto finally confesses after Gerardo warns him that is the only way Paulina will release him. The ending of the play does not fully resolve the questions: Is he guilty or not? Is her memory accurate or is she mentally unstable?
The rational Gerardo serves as a reflection of the audience or the public who might pass judgment on Paulina's actions. The play ends with Gerardo's commission report completed. The couple attends a concert and reception. They sit down to listen to the performance. A string quartet begins to play Schubert's "Death and the Maiden." Gerardo reaches over to take Paulina's hand; she sits and stares straight ahead.
Oh's performance is grim, sad and nuanced throughout the play. In the beginning, Castillo seems young for the part, but his performance gains power. Judd is one of Chicago's finest actors, but his performance doesn't forcefully show the intelligence and wiliness of the character. The role is difficult, since he spends half of the play tied up and gagged. Still, one wishes to see the part played as it was by Ben Kingsley in Roman Polanski's 1994 film.
William Boles' beautiful scenic design, which rotates to show the central living space and two outdoor areas, contributes to the flow of the play. Mikhail Fiksel's sound design shows the music off to its advantage and Jesse Klug's atmospheric lighting illuminates the changes in the ocean backdrop as well as the interiors.
Dorfman and his family were in exile during the Pinochet years and he now holds a chair in literature and Latin American studies at Duke University, Durham, NC. His latest book is Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011).
Victory Gardens Theatre is celebrating its 40th season and now is ranked among Chicago's midsized companies. In 2001, Victory Gardens received the Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre. The company moved into its new home in the restored Victory Gardens Biograph Theater in 2006. The venue, one of Chicago's historic landmarks, was the movie theater where bank robber John Dillinger was shot by FBI agents in 1934.
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission