Revenge or Justice?

Despite some flaws, LTW's 'Death and the Maiden' is a powerful piece

Will the deeply entrenched human drive for revenge always trump humanity's aspiration for justice? Are there some wounds so deep that they don't just injure the soul, but kill it?

Live Theatre Workshop is giving us an opportunity to consider these questions as we witness the dramatic puzzle of Ariel Dorfman's 1990 play, Death and the Maiden, in which he explores the seeming inevitability of the sadistic drive that leads individuals to torture the less-powerful—and the equally deadly drive of the tortured for revenge.

The Argentine-born Dorfman was an adviser to Salvador Allende in Chile from 1970 to 1973, until he was forced to leave when Augusto Pinochet established his radical imperialist regime, which led not only to Allende's death, but the torture and disappearance—and assumed death—of thousands over the next two decades. Although his piece is not specifically about this time in Chile's history, the play has certainly grown out of Dorfman pondering its consequences.

The play borrows its title from Franz Schubert's 1824 String Quartet No. 14, also known as Death and the Maiden, which incorporates the setting of a song (with the same title) that Schubert wrote in 1817 when he was in the depths of depression resulting from illness and poverty. Dorfman's use of Schubert's piece to title his drama is certainly deliberate—in ways that are obvious as well as subtle.

LTW's production gives us the more-direct look at Dorfman's story and its Schubert undertones, and it does so with admirable effectiveness. This is a challenging piece, and there are some unfortunate stumbles. But the power of Dorfman's enigmatic story unsettles us as we watch the work of director Chris Wilken and his three-actor ensemble.

In the first moments, we are introduced to Paulina (Cynthia Jeffery), dozing and draped over a chair. When she hears the sound of an approaching car, she reaches for a gun. We learn that this extreme response comes from her experience as a torture victim 15 years earlier, which had been cruelly sanctioned by a totalitarian state. But the car is merely bringing home her husband, Gerardo (Cliff Madison), who has just been named to a human-rights commission of the now newly democratic state. His car had a flat tire, and a good Samaritan, a doctor named Roberto Miranda (Keith Wick), has rescued him. The couple bicker a bit, and although we see the ghost of Paulina's wound, the two seem amiable and normal enough.

But when the doctor returns at midnight—he claims he just discovered Gerardo's appointment and wanted to congratulate him—Paulina becomes convinced that he is the doctor responsible for her torture. Unknown to Gerardo, who has invited the doctor to spend the night, Paulina produces her gun, gags Miranda and straps him to a chair, determined at least to induce a confession.

So is he her torturer, or isn't he? This is the question that fundamentally drives the drama. And whether he is or not, are Paulina's actions justified? And how do Gerardo's convictions and sympathies help guide the trio's direction?

Dorfman is clever in planting clues and releasing bits of information that keep us guessing as we ponder the dilemma in which these three find themselves. It's his intention to keep us shifting our sympathies—but the issue with LTW's production is the problem of actually finding our sympathies, especially with Paulina and Gerardo. We understand what they represent, and we understand intellectually that their actions arise from extreme complications of mind and spirit. But it's hard to feel for them. Although Dorfman certainly intends to make us think, he desires that we register the story on a deeply personal level. That's necessary for the intent of the play to be fully realized.

These characters require excellent actors who are capable of finding and delivering the nuances that make us care for them and suffer with them. Madison and Jeffery are capable performers, but here, they seem unable to find more than one note to identify and represent their characters. Madison relies on hand-wringing and labored breathing to demonstrate his conundrum, and Jeffery doesn't find enough moments to reveal the vulnerability that would soften our hearts before she deteriorates into brutal madness.

As Miranda, Wick needs to discover ways to make us both suspect him and sympathize with him—and Wick accomplishes this quite well. We are convinced of the validity of his moral indignation at what he claims is his unjustified treatment, and we are just as convinced of his credibility when he is reciting the chilling details of the supposed confession of his past actions.

Schubert's quartet plays a part in the actual storytelling: A cassette of the piece is found in Miranda's coat pocket, and Paulina recalls that the same piece was played repeatedly during the time she was being tortured. In addition, the play has a musical quality, with echoes of Schubert's piece in its repetition of themes, violent outbursts and tight intensity. Director Wilken hasn't fully discovered this musicality, which makes some of the transitions in the story seem awkward.

Richard and Amanda Gremel's handsome set utilizes the small stage well, and Michael Martinez handles a tricky sound design skillfully.

Even with its lack of refinement in characterization, and some subtle lapses in direction, LTW's production delivers a provoking and disturbing story of how the horrible consequences of being victimized compete with our need to practice our ideas of justice. This is a powerful piece.