Anton Chekhov is credited with establishing the rule that if you introduce a gun in the first act, it must go off in the third. So abides Ariel Dorfman, who, in Death and the Maiden, introduces a gun in the first minute and keeps you wondering if someone will fire it until the end of the 90-minute production.
This drama by the Duke University writer-in-residence explores many complex issues, including the morality of vengeance, the legacy of totalitarianism and the psychological effects of rape and torture. (Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy's production touches upon these same issues but lacks the burning anger and intensity needed to convey them to the audience.)
The three-character piece unfolds over a long night in an unnamed Latin American country. Paulina (Benji Taylor Jones) is the skittish wife of Gerardo (Alan Campbell), a human rights lawyer recently appointed to a commission of the new government that's risen out of the ashes of the previous dictatorship. A guest arrives, Dr. Roberto Miranda (David McClutchey), who winds up spending the night—a decision he'll well regret when Paulina becomes convinced she has met him previously under horrifying circumstances.
Dorfman's play, which won the Laurence Olivier Award for best new play in 1992, is taut and morally ambiguous, probing whether a victim has the right to become an aggressor or is compelled to acknowledge the buried sins of the past. Roberto's guilt is constantly in question, as is Paulina's sanity. The story invites no clear-cut solution to this conundrum, instead leaving the characters searching for a solution they can live with.
The material draws heavily from Dorfman's background in Chile during the 17-year Pinochet regime and feels relevant in today's nervous political climate portended by mobile, decentralized terrorist groups. But the production suffers from a dryness that undercuts the intensity. Jones comes alive as Paulina when she recounts her tortures, but the character's anxiety feels more like twitchiness in the domestic scenes.
As Gerardo, Alan Campbell has the least developed part. At times, Gerardo seems to be scolding a child rather than dealing with an emotionally unstable woman. McClutchey (the sole cast member who attempts a Latino accent) has the hardest part, since a large portion of his stage time involves being bound and gagged, but he achieves the play's highest emotional moment during a harrowing monologue.
Dorfman's perspective is clear: In a recent appearance with Nelson Mandela in South Africa, he spoke of the need to forgive one's enemies and reconcile with the past. Death and the Maiden reminds us of both of these ideals and that achieving them is difficult. The production doesn't quite do justice to the darker implications of Dorfman's work, but the darker messages of the material make Maiden worth seeing—and discussing afterward.