Review: ‘Death and the Maiden’

Political drama by Chilean novelist and human rights champion Ariel Dorfman, which features the confrontation between a torturer and his victim, gets a flat, lackluster staging in this Taper production.

Political drama by Chilean novelist and human rights champion Ariel Dorfman, which features the confrontation between a torturer and his victim, gets a flat, lackluster staging in this Taper production.

As the play opens, lawyer Gerardo Escobar (Jimmy Smits) has just been appointed to an investigative commission. While he is thrilled by the important role he is about to play, his wife, Paulina (Wanda de Jesus), who was arrested and tortured as a university student, is cynical about the prospect of bringing the political criminals to justice.

But in a dramatically convenient twist, fate dumps Paulina’s torturer, Dr. Roberto Miranda (Tomas Milian), in her lap when he stops to help her husband fix a flat tire.

What ensues is a two-hour confrontation between Paulina and Dr. Miranda — performed unmercifully without an intermission — that explores the emotional and moral wounds that are the legacy of this era in Chile’s history.

While Americans can learn from and sympathize with the characters, the emotional impact is remote, particularly in this production, which does little to convey the political or emotional tenor of the world of the play.

The acting and directing don’t help the cause. Perfs are one-note, with de Jesus struggling valiantly to connect with the emotional state of the shattered victim but never succeeding. Smits gives a straight-ahead rendition of the husband, with very little shading. Milian wavers as the torturing doctor, except for a fine, dramatic monologue at play’s end.

Director Robert Egan has clearly missed the mark, skimming the superficial political surface without plumbing more subtle emotional depths. The unfortunate result is a stale museum piece — the kind of art one wants to like because its heart is in the right place but which fails to connect on a simple human level.

Death and the Maiden

Mark Taper Forum; 737 seats; $35 top.

Production

Center Theatre Group presents a drama by Ariel Dorfman. Directed by Robert Egan.

Creative

Set, Yael Pardess; costumes, Todd Roehrman; lighting, Martin Aronstein; sound, Jon Gottlieb; music, Karl Fredrik Lundeberg. Reviewed Jan. 26, 1994 (through March 13).

Cast

Paulina Salas - Wanda de Jesus
Roberto Miranda - Tomas Milian
Gerardo Escobar - Jimmy Smits
Gerardo's friend - Marcelo Tubert
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