Directed by John Vreeke

'Death and the Maiden' Explores Torture's Toll
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 5, 2002; Page C01 

At the start of Theater J's production of "Death and the Maiden," a Schubert string quintet begins to play, and the face of a middle-aged woman appears upstage, framed by a spotlight. The piece's warm tones seem to augur an evening of theater of the more serene variety. So why then is the woman's gaze so blazingly intense? 

It's far from apparent at first what dreadful role another Schubert composition has played in the life of this woman: A string quartet is a trigger for memories so scalding that when asked to find words to describe them, she will spit them out in hysterical spurts. As played by the excellent Paula Gruskiewicz, the woman lives on the precipice of distress; you're not quite sure at any moment whether she might begin unloading the dishwasher or tearing out her hair. 

Gruskiewicz's work is emblematic of the keen psychological realism of this new production of Ariel Dorfman's 1990 drama, revived here under the skillful direction of John Vreeke. She and the two actors who share the stage with her, Mitchell Hebert and John Lescault, offer intriguingly ambiguous portraits of three people forced to confront the morally complex, wrenching ramifications of state-sponsored torture. The events recounted in "Death and the Maiden," in fact, mirror the terror-filled period in Chile, where Dorfman was a college professor, after the military coup that toppled the government of Salvador Allende in 1973. 

With such an explosive subject, however, there is the ever-present danger of histrionics, and Dorfman, no master of subtlety, has his share of overly dramatic devices. The setup for the evening itself strains credulity: Gruskiewicz's Paulina Escobar is at home with her lawyer husband, Gerardo (Lescault), when a cultured stranger (Hebert) appears at the door. The voice is all too familiar to Paulina; she soon is convinced that this is the man who had tortured and raped her during her illegal detention 15 years earlier. 

Paulina does not pick up the phone, though. No, she picks up a gun, pistol-whips the stranger into unconsciousness and straps him to a chair in her living room, where she plans to force a confession out of him. Paulina's behavior raises the sorts of questions philosophers and ethicists like to chew over in symposiums: To secure justice, does a victim have the right to adopt the tactics of her tormentors? (It also just so happens that Gerardo has been appointed to a national commission looking into human rights abuses by the discredited military regime.) 

The evening could easily deteriorate into an exercise in fist-pounding excess. But Vreeke and his acting trio follow an alternative route, choosing to view "Death and the Maiden" less as a thriller or a morality play than as a human drama about the psychic toll that trauma imposes. 

The revelations about domestic disturbances in the couple's lives -- Paulina's thwarted attempts at intimacy; Gerardo's unfaithfulness -- are painstakingly illuminated in Vreeke's staging. What you get incisively is the portrait of a marriage under the most severe sort of stress imaginable. 

Paulina's impulsive acts do not bring out the best in her husband, who was also persecuted -- but not tortured -- under the old regime. Lescault's self-serving Gerardo is bit of a coward, divided in his loyalties, worrying about how Paulina's act will affect his standing with the commission, and worse, doubting his wife's word. Caught between his wife's fury and her captive's feverish insistence that he is innocent, Lescault manages to put flesh on this sketchy character, giving a persuasive portrayal of a man seeking to do right by his spouse while trying to prevent any damage to his own reputation. 

Hebert is the solid third corner of this triangle. His placid Dr. Miranda is a diabolical creation, fawning one minute, defensive the next. In a nicely underplayed exchange, Hebert desperately tries to win Lescault to his side, asserting that Paulina is in need of therapy. "To put it brutally," the husband replies, "you are her therapy, doctor." 

James Kronzer's set is a mere suggestion: a few chairs, bathed in light, more reminiscent of an interrogation room than a living room. Behind them stands a ruined arch. In this sturdy production, it is civilization that is showing its cracks. 

Death and the Maiden, by Ariel Dorfman. Directed by John Vreeke. Set, James Kronzer; lighting, Dan Conway; sound, Mark Anduss; costumes, Susan Chiang. Approximately two hours. Through Dec. 1 at Goldman Theater, District of Columbia Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW.

Death and the Maiden
By: Ariel Dorfman

Director: John Vreeke

Actors: John Lescault, Paula Gruskiewicz, Mitchell Hébert

Producer: Ari Roth

Stage Manager: Elisabeth Reiter
  /Tara Brady
Set Designer: James Kronzer
Costume Designer: Susan Chiang
Light Designer: Dan Conway
Sound Designer: Mark Anduss
Fight Director: John Gurski
Videographer: James J. Taylor