It takes a brave writer to title a play “Purgatory,” in any language. How many single-ticket buyers are going to race out to snatch up seats for a show named after the most indeterminate and uneventful realm ever imagined? But, of course, writer-activist Ariel Dorfman is no coward, and it’s a relief to report that his new drama, while grim, is neither interminable nor pointless. To the contrary, it clips along for a mere 80 minutes and springs from an interesting conceit — the idea of Jason and Medea meeting in the afterlife. So it feels worthwhile, albeit in a somewhat medicinal way.
The drama’s two characters, unnamed, meet in a whiter-than-white room and in successive scenes take turns as doctor/patient, interrogator/accused, criminal/victim. Slowly their shared history of betrayal, child murder and suicide is revealed.
Charlayne Woodard plays the Woman with a tragic fury; Dan Snook is a bit more naturalistic as the hyperambitious Man. Together they dredge up deep emotions — especially in a brutal conversation in which the Woman recounts stabbing her two young sons to death.
Can the worst crimes be pardoned? Is there such a thing as an innocent victim? (Theatergoers will recognize themes here from Dorfman’s “Death and the Maiden.”) One thing is clear, at least in this purgatory: People would rather hold fast to their histories, no matter how horrible, than risk losing their identities by forgiving or forgetting.
“Purgatorio” is the first play David Esbjornson chose to direct in his new capacity as Seattle Repertory Theater’s artistic director. He also co-created the antiseptic stage design with Nick Schwartz-Hall. The production is unlikely to be a crowdpleaser — it’s just too chilly, too stark. But it sends a clear message that Esbjornson means serious business, or more accurately, serious art. Dorfman isn’t the only one showing his courage here.