Putting aside for the moment the ethical (and spiritual) hangover rattling our national skull from the debate over the efficacy and definition of torture, anyone whose neural circuits are all firing can agree that using torture puts one on the side of history's brutes. It's as close to an absolute moral law as we can find: Torturing people is wrong.
And yet, some would overturn this high horse with a question: What about using torture against someone who has brutalized you or someone you love? Don't, then, all the lofty thoughts go out the window, and we relish the beasts we become? It is into this thicket that Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden stomps noisily, wisely sidestepping certainty yet providing a visceral rush.
Of course, this is a play and not a philosophy treatise, and Liz Neerland directs this streamlined and efficient production with purpose and intelligence. All the action takes place in a seaside home, where Paulina (Delta Rae Giordano) lives with her husband, Gerardo (Matthew Greseth). In the opening scene, Gerardo comes home from a meeting with the president of their unnamed country; he has been offered a position investigating the human rights trespasses of the previous regime. Paulina, it turns out, was one of that government's many victims, tortured horribly as a political prisoner more than a decade ago.
Giordano continues to expand her range on the local stage, yet her character is hard to read in the early going. Paulina is mercurial, barbed, monumentally insecure, and carrying all manner of mental scars. In the first scene, when she and Gerardo are alone, the play seems to drift, and it's hard to access the main currents of these characters. Still, we do get a sense of the myriad compromises, half-truths, and measured silences that have kept them in tenuous union.
Then things get really interesting. Gerardo has a late-night visitor named Roberto (Gabriele Angieri Jr.), whom he barely knows. The two engage in some macho political talk on the patio while hoovering cigars, and everything comes into focus. Paulina, out of bed and listening from the hallway, recognizes their guest's voice as one of her captors (she had been blindfolded through all that she endured). Paulina, indistinct until now, turns into an object of polished steel, and the show coalesces around her.
Waiting until her guest is asleep, Paulina conks him in the head, drags him into the living room, and ties him to a chair. From here, the questions are many. Does Paulina kill him? Torture him in the same way she was tortured? Or rise above the insistent pull of revenge?
Angieri brings a stately charm to his performance as Roberto, and after his character wakes the next morning he evinces a convincing moral indignation. Gerardo, having planned a big breakfast and some easy chatter, goes ballistic when he sees what his wife has done (Greseth is insubstantial in the early going, but starting with Gerardo's holy-shit reaction he conveys his character's slip-slide sense of himself as a good guy, despite a few bits of evidence that argue otherwise).
You're not going to know until the end (maybe not even then) whether Roberto's avowals of innocence are true, and the door is left open and swinging over whether Paulina extracts her revenge (and in what measure). Which is the point: no tidy conclusions. What we have instead is a high wire—the barely rational aftermath of brutality and evil—one that holds up notions of justice for examination and, while not quite finding them wanting, manages to depict how they fray and unravel when real evil is perpetrated. Before the lights go out, we hear Schubert, his aching and longing, a tide of the best in us that manages only in part to drown out the worst.