We often take for granted the labyrinthine nature of our minds. The destination in which we find ourselves may seem wrong from the path we took, but right when another takes a different route. True, we may be at the same location, but the reasoning that led to these ideas is what dictates our reactions. Justification is the name of the game. Whereas one, from the outside, may see an action as horrid, the individual in question sees their choices as logical, moral, and right. Despite what many works of fiction would have us believe, most villainous individuals don’t commit atrocities based on some bombastic desire to be evil. It doesn’t make sense. The crimes we commit, the barbarism that plagues us isn’t simply an epidemic one must fear catching. It’s a fear response to keep one concept in mind, that we are good people.
Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman follows Paulina Escobar and her husband Gerardo in the post-dictatorship years of their South American homeland (while the country itself is never mentioned by name it is heavily implied, given the time frame of the play’s publication and the nature of the dictatorship, that it takes place in Chile following the fall of the Pinochet Regime). One night Gerardo, after getting a flat tire, is driven home by Dr. Roberto Miranda in an act of kindness. However, Paulina, who was brutally raped and tortured as a political prisoner for a prolonged period of time, recognizes Miranda’s voice as that of “The Doctor”, the cruel leader of the men who abused her, none of whom she ever saw. Driven by desires for revenge and justice, Paulina imprisons Miranda and seeks retribution for the countless days of punishment she endured.
Much of the production’s weight depends on the trio of actors’ relationships with one another. Each pair-off of two characters brings with it a new dynamic to each scene that helps the flow of the production greatly. Cathie Sheridan (Paulina) is clearly in control of the show, both in her performance and as her character in the story. It doesn’t take long for the noticeably anxious Sheridan to lose herself to her fears and desires, whereupon she nimbly floats between rage and glee during the ordeal. Sheridan easily portrays a woman pushed to the edge of stability and is seeking satisfaction in the only way she sees is right. Frank Benge (Miranda) similarly floats between cunning and desperation. He continually maintains a sharp countenance that suggests he is formulating some means of escape while simultaneously looking like a man who has no idea how to escape with his life. Benge’s eyes tell varying stories when he is and isn’t gagged. Just by looking at them one finds it difficult to tell if this is the man who committed these heinous acts. As for Robert Stevens (Gerardo), he definitely gives off the calming vibe that comes with being the self-appointed mediator in the room, trying at once to satisfy his wife’s wants while also attempting to save Miranda’s life. Stevens’ classical background certainly shows in his physical mannerisms, and definitely shines when Gerardo is enraged. My only concern with his performance comes from the occasions in which his levelheadedness seems too calm for the given circumstances. It makes sense that at least one person in the room remains as balanced as possible, but I feel there was room for this to fall away over time. Still, his preternatural calm certainly sets an appropriately demeaning tone between he and Sheridan from the beginning, thereby further justifying Paulina’s need to take control of the situation.
Given the visceral intimacy of the play’s content, the set provided for the production serves the context quite well. Jim and Debra Mischel’s design is simple yet detailed. A small shelf, a table, and some framed photographs of free and caged birds (quite an apt touch) create most of the set, yet it’s all that is needed given show’s focus on Sheridan’s rage, Benge’s desperation, and Stevens’s trepidation. Benge spends much of the play in one spot, thereby allowing a rather large space (given the cast size) over to Sheridan and Stevens as they reason with (and threaten) one another. I was also quite a fan of Ashley Sandel’s lighting designs for the most part. She clearly understands how lighting effects can be used as “effects” in a production (a simple, yet evocative use of an upstage lamp to silhouette a conversation worked quite nicely). The only design that gave me pause was the use of a slowly flashing light to depict a character’s actions. I can see that they were going for a passage of time sort of effect on the scene, but given the circumstances of the event I felt it would have been able to either keep the event lit up or in the near darkness which preceded the scene (a very effective use of near total darkness I might add). There’s one other small detail that hindered the production a bit, and that was the scene transitions. Most of the scene changes were nothing more than the removal of a few props performed at a sluggish pace which broke the pacing between scenes. True, once the show started up again everything felt fine, but the transitions still added some unwanted drag that could have been hastened or avoided.
With a single set, three cast members, and some visceral conversations, Death and the Maiden excels in a smaller, more intimate venue like the Sam Bass Community Theatre. The production is greatly aided by how close the audience must be to the physical and emotional actions that occur onstage. I don’t wish to suggest that this is a grotesque production. Far from it. But Death and the Maiden is visually affecting in such a way that makes tension palpable, the threats conceivable, and the results unpredictable. Ultimately, the script’s greatest strength is that it treats both Paulina and Miranda as sympathetic and of questionable morality. Though there are hints to suggest whether or not Miranda is the infamous Doctor, there is never any solid evidence to say that Paulina isn’t paranoid nor that Miranda isn’t lying to save his life. Either one could be at fault. It’s just the right amount of ambiguity to maintain during and long after the show. It’s just the right kind of moral ambiguity and intrigue that leaves me thinking about who, if anyone, was right all the way home.
Death and the Maiden continues playing at the Sam Bass Community Theatre every Thursday, Friday, and Saturdayat 8pm and Sunday at 2pm until June 11th. This show has been marked as being for mature audiences.