Consider, Chile, or, say, any country in Latin America wherein a dictatorship has preceded a democracy. Consider a woman has been held captive as political prisoner and tortured and raped by her captors in this country. Consider then, the effect that such trauma can have at every level. Imagine the personal, social, emotional, political circumstances of such an event and its potential to affect anyone within its reach. It is vast and thick and deep. Such is the subject matter of Ariel Dorfman's DEATH AND THE MAIDEN, playing at Sam Bass Theatre in Round Rock. Not the usual local theatre fare, DEATH AND THE MAIDEN is indeed a political, social, and personal play.
The play opens late one night years after said political regime has fallen. Gerardo (Robert Stevens) a prominent lawyer, has been visiting with the President, however, he is forced to ride home with a stranger thanks to a flat tire. The President plans to appoint Gerardo to a position that will give him the opportunity to seek justice and appropriately put on trial those who played a role in his wife Paulina's (Cathie Sheridan) capture. Later that night, the stranger returns, and Paulina recognizes his voice to be that of Dr. Roberto Miranda (Frank Benge) the man who tortured and raped her as a political prisoner.
Paulina takes justice into her own hands. She takes Miranda captive at gunpoint in order to get a confession from him. Gerardo awakens to find Miranda held captive by Paulina the next morning and attempts to reason with her, but she's convinced the stranger is indeed Miranda. Gerardo is not convinced of Miranda's guilt, and rightfully so. His wife Paulina has been so traumatized by the events of her past that she is skittish at best and downright homicidal at worst. And she can't be blamed, really, once we learn of what specific torture she endured. In fact, when she shares all of it with Gerardo, he helps (the man that may or may not be) Miranda formulate a confession, if for nothing else than to provide his wife with closure. However, when Paulina sends Gerardo out to get Miranda's car so he can leave, a dialogue ensues that leaves both Miranda's guilt and Paulina's motivation in question. There are no clear answers in this delusional quagmire of control and power.
DEATH AND THE MAIDEN weighs in on a number of levels. For instance, Gerardo embodies the political weight of the script. He could be interpreted as a representative of the people, both literally and literarily. As such, Robert Stevens is level headed and reasonable, however, I found myself wishing he'd go over the edge just a little more. Paulina provides us the personal and emotional, and Cathie Sheridan brings a lovely shine to such a psychologically demanding role. Stuck with the challenging position of guilty party (or not) Frank Benge speaks volumes without saying a word, conveying both the innocence and guilt of those who've persecuted others. In the case of Miranda, we are left to our own interpretation of his participation in the events to which he's eventually forced to confess.
Under the direction of Veronica Prior, the production leans more toward the personal than the political. As the play unfolds it becomes a character study of those deeply impacted by political unrest, and it's in large part due to the generous skill Benge and Sheridan lend to the production. Paulina and Miranda are characters written with the potential to be overplayed, particularly in such an intimate venue, and both these actors remained within the controlled boundaries of the particular neuroses of their characters.
Dramas like this one are fairly rare in the central Texas theatre scene, but they are no less worthy of attention than lighter fare. It's a little harder to bring oneself to spend an evening looking at the potential failures of the collective political apathy and how it can impact us personally than going to see, say, Oklahoma. Nevertheless, DEATH AND THE MAIDEN gives us an opportunity to consider our ideas of justice and humanity.