The man who raped Paulina 15 years ago shows up at her doorstep, but will she pull the trigger?
Penned by Ariel Dorfman and directed by Gordon McCall, Death and the Maiden is set in 1990, in a newly democratic Chile. Following a 15-year rule by dictator Augusto Pinochet, it is clear that people are uneasy and anxious about what lies ahead for them and their country.
The play opens to Paulina Salas (Tania Kontoyanni) alone in her house. A car pulls into the driveway. She becomes frantic, worried, agitated; she digs for the gun from the desk drawer in the living room. She aims at the door, ready to shoot. It’s just her husband, Geraldo Escobar (Neil Napier). He explains to his wife that he got a flat on his way home and a passerby offered him a ride back after an hour of waving his arms around “like a windmill.” The couple gets into an argument about the missing spare tire, and the jack that Paulina loaned to her mother. It is an emotionally charged discussion, and the couple takes this opportunity to bring up other grievances with each other.
In the middle of the night, there is a knock at the door. Cautious, armed, and against the wishes of Paulina, Geraldo opens the door to find the good Samaritan from earlier that night. He is Dr. Roberto Miranda (Wayne Burnett), whose voice and mannerisms strike an all-too-familiar chord with Paulina. She is convinced he is responsible for her imprisonment, rape, and torture – traumatic events she has kept quiet about for over 15 years. After he is invited to stay the night by Geraldo, Paulina knocks him out, ties him to a chair and interrogates him at gunpoint. She wants a confession out of him, even if he has nothing to confess.
Kontoyanni is a revelation. Her performance as fragile Paulina overshadows her male cast mates and makes it impossible not to take her side and root for her. While Napier and Burnett are strong in their roles, they often overact. When he is tied up and being questioned, Dr. Miranda’s facial expressions, wheezing and yelling, were funny and seldom believable.
The simple set features the couple’s dining and living rooms in the forefront, where the entire play takes place. The fact that the play relies simply on the characters’ interactions with each other is a true statement about the intricacies and emotion of their lives. There are no gimmicks. The set and lighting serve to focus our attention on the characters and their stories.
The play brings up some very poignant questions. Should people’s lack of faith in the traditional legal system make it acceptable for them to take matters into their own hands? Is the old adage “an eye for a eye” always applicable?
Unlike Roman Polanski’s 1994 film version of the narrative, the play does not tie up loose ends. The ending is unclear and what happens next is up for debate. The sometimes funny and thought-provoking play does not shock, but is an eye-opener in terms of how far people will go to gain peace of mind.
Death and the Maiden plays at the Centaur Theatre until Dec. 6.