Reviewed by George Basler
On one level, Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden is a taut psychological thriller. On another level, it asks some difficult questions, without providing easy answers: Do we need to forgive the unforgivable to preserve our own sanity? What is the morality of vengeance? When does forgiving and forgetting become dishonoring the victims?
These questions are front and center in a riveting production of Dorfman’s provocative play that will run through next week at KNOW Theatre in Binghamton.
The three cast members — Dori May Ganisin, Tim Gleason and Nick DeLucia — are outstanding in bringing to life the probing drama about the impact of buried sins on people and entire societies.
The play takes place in an unnamed Latin American country that obviously is Chile, Dorfman’s home country, which through the 17 years of General Augusto Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship. During the time period, thousands of persons were kidnapped, tortured or simply “disappeared.”
The central character is Paulina Salas (Ganisin), who still bears the mental scars of being tortured and raped under the old regime. She’s married to an activist lawyer (Gleason), just appointed to a new commission set up to investigate, within limits, the crimes of the old regime.
To be honest, the play’s set up is a bit contrived and farfetched. A seemingly Good Samaritan doctor (DeLucia) stops to help the husband, whose car has had a flat tire. The doctor then shows up unannounced later at the couple’s beachfront house ostensibly to congratulate the husband on his appointment,
It’s a move he soon lives to regret after Paulina hears his voice and becomes convinced he was one of her torturers years ago. She holds him hostage at gunpoint to put him “on trial” for his alleged crimes. The doctor pleads innocence, and the husband is caught in the middle.
Once the hostage drama begins, the play takes off and becomes quite gripping. Dorfman skillfully keeps the audience guessing for most of the play whether the doctor is guilty or whether a mentally unsound Paulina is victimizing an innocent man.
But the play is far more than a revenge fantasy. Dorfman throws out a number of issues. Does the victim have the right to become a torturer? When does justice become sadistic vengeance that just repeats itself? Do past wrongs have to be buried so that people and society as a whole don’t tear themselves apart?
During the course of the play, Paulina and her husband have to confront their own personal betrayal, which they have buried to survive. Their personal confrontation reflects the larger debate going on in the country as a whole.
Dorfman’s ending is an enigmatic one that audience members can debate and discuss.
The KNOW cast is just plain wonderful. As Paulina, Ganisin has the stand-out role, and she gives a performance of great intensity. She is caustic one moment and emotionally damaged the next, but the transition is never jarring. She catches the character’s psychological pain but also the anger and bitterness that risk corroding her soul. When she recounts her torture, the moment is memorable.
The husband is a very nuanced role. Gleason plays him as a caring spouse but also as a man who is obviously ambitious. The character seems to be struggling at times to balance these conflicting needs. He also encapsulates the play’s main question of when personal retribution has to be set aside for the greater good of society. It’s a very good performance.
DeLucia is also first-rate as the doctor. It’s not an easy performance. He is tied up for much of the role and has to stay in character as the action takes place elsewhere on the stage. Over the course of the play, DeLucia successfully transitions from indignant rage to whimpering fear to a seeming lack of repentance. His monologue about torture, which comes toward the end of the play, is both repellent and harrowing. In the end, DeLucia doesn’t make his character sympathetic — far from it — but he does make him disturbingly understandable.
The play’s direction by Brandt Reiter is also first-rate. And applause should go to Gregory Bain’s lighting design and Kat D’Andrea’s set design.
In all respects, Death and the Maiden is a play that stays with you. The production is a definite highlight for the KNOW Theatre.
IF YOU GO: The final performances of “Death and the Maiden” will take place 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday (June 27-29) at KNOW Theatre’s Binghamton City Stage, 74 Carroll St., Binghamton. Tickets are $20 (seniors, $15; students, $10; call 724-4341, or order online at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Note: KNOW Theatre now taks credit cards at its ticket window.)