Disclaimer: This story and the play it reviews includes references to sexual violence, torture, murder, and other subjects that may be challenging to engage with. Please use discretion.
At times scattered, murky, and confusing, Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden asks us to decide for ourselves how far one person can or should go in a search for justice, or revenge. It also interrogates the tension between these two objectives and seems to question whether they can ever be achieved simultaneously. Our protagonist, Paulina, is a woman who suffered brutal torture and rape when she was a political prisoner of a corrupt and oppressive government, or that governments partisan paramilitary forces. This experience, that happened while she was in college, has left her scarred and broken in many ways, perhaps a danger to herself and others. Her husband Gerardo is a weak and disloyal but in some ways principled man who tries to be sympathetic and supportive; but he can never understand or erase the reality of her trauma, and his desire to do so infuriates her. One night, Paulina hears a voice that she recognizes from the torture chamber, and that is where the story truly begins. Three people in a country house, locked in a struggle over who is guilty, what really happened, and what retribution, justice, or peace can be found now. This appears to be a conscious attempt to depict the difficulty and complications of similar struggles all over the globe after periods of civil war or sectarian strife.
The cast does a wonderful job playing some extremely challenging emotions and interactions, in particular Samantha Seawolf who is compelling and magnetic as she moves effortlessly from whispering to seething to shrieking. Every note, gesture, and movement is near perfect, and Samantha takes a character who could easily be played in a way that feels inauthentic, voyeuristic, or exploitative and makes her feel authentic. The performance makes Paulina’s pain real, and makes the audience feel some of that pain with her. Paul Flores is quite effective as Roberto, with an affected mask of affable and gregarious charm that occasionally slips to reveal the hunger and cruelty that lies behind his easy grin. Alex Winnock’s Gerardo capably supports the challenging story.
I left the theater feeling wrung out, overwhelmed by emotion. If I were in Paulina’s place, trapped in the memories of all that pain, what would I do? I don’t know, and I probably never will unless I find myself in a similar place. This is a good play, done well, I recommend it.
Death and the Maiden, the Studio Theatre, UConn Storrs Campus, running through April 2nd, 2023.