The sense of danger in the world, of evil walking among us, has only increased since Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden made its debut in 1990. The intensity and uncertainty built into the script feel very much of the moment. Despite the passage of more than 20 years, Dorfman’s examination of torture and retribution hasn’t aged a bit.
Newly revived at Plantation’s Mosaic Theatre, Death and the Maiden offers its three actors the chance to deliver psychologically rich performances designed to keep the audience off balance. Under Avi Hoffman’s direction, Mosaic’s cast – Laura Turnbull as a forever-traumatized torture victim, Stephen G. Anthony as her lawyer husband and Oscar Cheda as the doctor who may or may not have been the woman’s tormentor – make good on the script’s potential.
Turnbull plays Paulina Salas, a woman living in an unspecified Latin American country much like Dorfman’s Chile. Under the previous brutal regime, Paulina was kidnapped, held and tortured, particularly by a doctor who would regularly rape her as Franz Schubert’s Death and the Maiden string quartet played in the background. Always blindfolded, she never saw the man’s face. But she remembers, too well and too vividly, his voice, the feel of his skin and his smell.
Paulina’s husband, Gerardo Escobar (Anthony), has just been named to a presidential commission charged with investigating the abuses of the old regime, specifically the cases that ended in the victim’s death. Gerardo appears to be on a fast track to higher visibility and more power in the new democracy. But what he doesn’t always recognize is the ongoing trauma of the victim closest to him.
The couple’s ordered, cautious world is upended when a doctor, Roberto Miranda (Cheda), gives Gerardo a lift back to his chic beach house after the lawyer’s tire is punctured by a nail. Later, cowering on the terrace as the two men talk, Paulina listens to her husband and to another voice that brings that long-ago brutality flooding back. Soon, Paulina turns the tables on a sleeping Escobar, making him a captive and demanding a confession despite his confused, angry, frightened protestations of innocence.
Is Paulina right, or is she over the edge with post-traumatic stress? Is Escobar a guiltless doctor or a guilty monster? The way that Dorfman plants doubts and shifts alliances creates an uncertainty that propels the play for most of its 90 taut minutes.
The acting, particularly the intense performance by Turnbull, is absorbing, even if none of the characters seem particularly of that time and place. Mosaic’s fine design team delivers a lovely beach house (Douglas Grinn), mood-shifting lighting (Suzanne M. Jones) and the sounds of the sea and of Paulina’s past torment (Matt Corey). But a final brief scene, designed to underscore that evil-among-us idea, is a hot mess in every way imaginable