When a society wakes from a totalitarian nightmare, is reconciliation or revenge the way to finally end the darkness? Productions of Death and the Maiden like the one Rhubarb Theater Company is now presenting have intriguingly explored that question for more than 20 years.
The Pinochet regime may have laid the historical groundwork for Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman’s 1990 play, but because dictatorships continue to rise and fall all over the world – with recent events in North Africa and the Middle East serving as contemporary examples – its story certainly remains relevant. And an able cast directed by Heather Webber does a fair job of making this show feel fresh.
Paulina Salas (Trish Crist) is quite jittery when she doesn’t see her husband’s car pull up to their well-appointed beachfront home, retrieving a gun and dousing the lights until her spouse Gerardo Escobar (Phil Brady) appears at the door. Her highly agitated state is understandable: Paulina still bears severe psychological scars from the torturous time she spent under arrest during the days when fascism held sway in her country (which goes unnamed in the play).
Gerardo has had a flat tire, and Dr. Roberto Miranda (Bakari J. King) has stopped to help him. Miranda later visits to return Gerardo’s spare and congratulate him on being named to a new fact-finding commission by the nation’s president. But hearing his voice triggers 15-year-old memories for Paulina that lead her to believe the doctor was one of her chief torturers. What follows is a suspenseful showdown where the boundary between justice and vengeance is definitely blurred.
When the play opened Thursday lines sometimes got lost in the tensions created onstage but the well-paced production’s interplay was nevertheless fairly good. The best moments for all three came after intermission as the personal fissures between Paulina and Gerardo – and the question of whether Miranda was truly guilty of being Paulina’s persecutor – are fleshed out.
The play’s set (which goes uncredited in the program), Leah Fincher’s lights and sound and a pre-performance slideshow by Jack E. Chambers aid in focusing this production, and with the well-established talents of those involved the somewhat uneven performances opening night will likely improve as the run progresses. Ultimately Rhubarb’s Death and the Maiden still plays like the 1824 Franz Schubert quartet composition that figures prominently in its story and title – dramatic and compelling, where death holds both terror and comfort.
Rhubarb Theater Company’s presentation of Death and the Maiden continues with performances today (Saturday, Aug. 25) at 7:30 p.m. in Darkhorse Theater (4610 Charlotte Ave.) and Friday, Aug. 31 at 7:30 p.m. in Belmont University’s Black Box Theater (1575 Compton Ave.). To reserve tickets ($12; pay-what-you-can ticket option on the Aug. 31 show, which is one of the First Night Honors events) or get more info call (615) 397-7820 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Image courtesy Rhubarb Theater Company.