By Ariel Dorfman
Directed by Chay Yew
At Victory Gardens Theater, Chicago
Explosive political thriller fizzles with unresolved issues
Victory Gardens Theater moves away from the mission of mounting new works in order to mount a revival of the 1992 political drama, Death and the Maiden, starring Grey’s Anatomy’s Sandra Oh. Ariel Dorfman’s thriller is set in the 1970’s in a South American country, probably Chile just after they deposed the dictator Pinochet.
We meet Paulina Salas (Sandra Oh), a nervous woman living in a swank sea-side home as she is startled by her late arriving husband Gerardo Escobar (Raul Castillo). We see how paranoid Paulina can be and when she and Gerardo speak about the car jacket that Paulina took from the family car. We see that they have a strained relationship. But when Gerardo tells Paulina that he will be apart of the new democracy as a member of a commission that will investigate human rights abuses from the dictatorship, Paulina seems interested. The couple hint of Paulina’s attack 15 years ago that Paulina has trouble talking about.
But things get heated upon the arrival of the man who rescued Gerardo from his flat-tire incident, Roberto Miranda (John Judd). Paulina, upon hearing Roberto’s voice, is frightened. In one of several incredible plot twists, Miranda returns later that night to have a drink with Gerardo. Why?
While Roberto and Gerardo enjoy a drink, Paulina, hidden from sight, listens attentively to the conversation as Gerardo insists that Roberto stay the night then repair the flat in the morning. While hesleeps, Paulina knocks out then ties-up Roberta after stuffing her underwear into Roberto’s mouth.
In the morning, when Roberto’s wakes up, Paulina waves her pistol in his face as she reminds him that she’ll probably kill him for what he did to her during the dictatorship 15 years ago. When Gerardo enters, he tries to talk Paulina away from doing harm to Roberto but she insists that she remembers her rapists voice, his skin, and his smell from the many torture and sexual assaults. She tells Gerardo that he must prevail over a trail that he’ll host to get Roberto to confess to his crimes against her. If he will not cooperate, she’ll shoot him. Gerardo’s attempts to dissuade Paulina from her revenge falls on deaf ears. Is Paulina crazy or simply a determined woman bent on revenge? Or is Miranda the doctor who assaulted her? Miranda, is, indeed, a doctor and he loves to listen to Schubert’s composition Death and the Maiden. She cringes upon hearing that Schubert composition.
As the mock trial emerges, Miranda tells Gerardo that he is innocent and that Paulina is insane but that Gerardo must find out details from her attack so that Miranda can convince her that he is repentant but not the actual torturer. The details must be close yet not condemning. Paulina anticipated that as she feeds Gerardo some false items to test if Miranda will correct them, thus convicting the doctor. Amazingly, Paulina brings up Gerardo’s sexual indiscretions while the dynamic of the mock trial continues.
The effects on revenge and the need for both personal and societal closure are at play here. The thriller is so convincingly played by the terrific Sandra Oh that we can almost forgive the needlessly unresolved plots items. After apparently trapping Miranda in a damning lie and his failure to admit and seek forgiveness, we never know if Paulina shoots Miranda. We also never get enough evidence to determine if she is a vengeful spirit or an insane soul?
The final scene that finds Paulina and Gerardo at a recital of Schubert’s the Death and the Maiden is also vague since Paulina vows that she can’t ever listen to Schubert until justice is served in her case. Yet Gerardo’s government commission fails to convict anyone of past crimes and still, with a scared, menacing look, Paulina stares forward as the music plays. I do not understand this vagueness? Given the actions from Paulina, it is hard to believe we didn’t hear a gunshot during that near last blackout.
Sandra Oh’s powerful, nuanced and emotionally draining performance makes this play worth seeing. Too bad that playwright Ariel Dorfman left too much unresolved.
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: June 20, 2014
For more info checkout the Death and the Maiden page at theatreinchicago.com
At Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago, IL, call 773-871-3000, www.victorygardens.org, ticlets $4- m- $42, Tuesdays thru Saturdays at 7:30 pm, matinees on Wednesdays at 2 pm, Saturday matinees at 4 pm, Sundays at 3pm, run time is 90 minutes without intermission, through July20, 2014