Oftentimes, the idea of achieving justice in our fractured world seems like a pipe dream. In particular, people who torture and/or kill others, for whatever political reason, are rarely held to account. After their season of abuse is concluded, they usually just blend back into society and become consultants to the next horror show.
Torture and its ramifications form the happy subject of Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman, now being produced by the Mamai Theatre Company. Written with the pacing and focus of a nail-biting thriller, the play raises questions about the nature of truth, the possibility of justice, and the questionable ways we find to live with ourselves, and each other, in the wake of unspeakable events.
Thanks to a sure-handed three-person cast and sensitive direction, Death keeps the tension twisted tight. It all takes place in a non-specific South American country, modeled after the playwright's home country of Chile, which has just emerged from a long period of dictatorship. Paulina, who was tortured by that totalitarian regime 15 years before, is still suffering from PTSD, reacting in fear at the start of Act 1 when she sees a strange car pull up to the beach house she shares with her husband Gerardo.
Turns out, it's just the car of a good Samaritan who gave her hubby a lift after Gerardo's car broke down. A bit later, however, the car returns and the helpful stranger, Roberto, is back and offering to give Gerardo a ride to an auto mechanic the next morning. Hiding in an adjoining hallway, Paulina listens to their conversation with growing dread —since she's sure the stranger's voice is that of the man who tortured her 15 years earlier. This is based on the human rights violations that occurred during the time Augusto Pinochet ruled Chile in the 1970s and '80s.
The two men decide that Roberto should sleep over, so it's easier for him to drive Gerardo the next morning. And Paulina uses that opportunity to knock out Roberto and tie him to a kitchen chair, preparing for whatever retribution she decides to impose on him. Will she kill him, or torture him as she was tortured? She even contemplates having Gerardo rape Roberto (with a broom handle or otherwise) so her rapist can experience how it feels.
Dorfman's script is pieced together in interesting ways, as Paulina and Gerardo have intense discussions about the fate of her captive. Using bits of detail the playwright hints at but never states the actual identity of Roberto, finding similarities between him and her torturer with their fondness for the fey phrase "teensy-weensy" and a shared appreciation of Franz Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" chamber music composition.
Gerardo is a lawyer, recently appointed to a governmental commission, whose task is to reveal what really happened during the reign of the brutal military dictatorship. And he is immediately conflicted by the grave situation Paulina has created in their home. Jeffrey Grover fashions a believable Gerardo, loving but mystified by his wife's bold and seemingly nonsensical actions. And he raises the point that if victims seek their own kind of personal justice on people who have harmed them, are they no better than the torturers themselves? But as Paulina believes, if evildoers aren't held accountable, doesn't that just serve to perpetuate the evil?
There are clearly more questions than answers in this piece, many of which are powerfully embodied by Derdriu Ring as Paulina. Shifting from rage to sullen silence and then from sharp-tongued sarcasm to vulnerability, she provides a roadmap of the emotional cataclysms that now rule Paulina's life. You root for her to find justice even as you wonder about what such justice would look like.
In the frequently silent role of Roberto (he is often gagged with a pair of Paulina's panties), Terence Cranendonk walks a fine line. Jovial and friendly early on with Gerardo, he erupts with anger at his imprisonment. And when Roberto is forced to offer a confession, either real or imagined, Cranendonk's well-modulated delivery keeps you jumping from one side to the other, wondering if he's the real villain or just an innocent man playing a role.
Director Katia P. Schwarz keeps the tension ratcheting up on Playhouse Square's small Kennedy Theatre's stage while allowing the personalities of the characters to emerge. But at times the actors are so close together, especially when she is holding a gun on Roberto, that it seems illogical that he could not overpower her.
At the end, in a nicely staged scene that spills out into the audience, it becomes clear who is who in this standoff. And that denouement, accompanied by lovely music, lends an elegant and ambiguous conclusion to this engrossing play.