La Muerte Y la Doncella Death and the Maiden

This excellent production adds luster to the bright shine of Ariel Dorfman's script. It's a rich source of provocation, gripping on several levels.

This excellent production adds luster to the bright shine of Ariel Dorfman’s script. It’s a rich source of provocation, gripping on several levels.

Dorfman was forced into U.S. exile by the Chilean coup of 1973, and the program locates the play — about the aftermath of a brutal dictatorship — in “a country that is probably Chile.” But no particular setting is necessary for this story to resonate.

Paulina is so jangled that the sound of a car outside her secluded beach house incites her to point a gun at the front door. It’s husband Gerardo returning late because of a flat tire. Fortunately, he says, a man stopped to aid him.

The man, Roberto, shows up, purportedly to return Gerardo’s tire but more to talk about his just-announced role for the newly installed democratic regime.

Gerardo, a lawyer, is to investigate charges of human-rights abuses during the previous tyranny. It’s a strong issue with him because Paulina was taken by officials and tormented.

Then Paulina bursts in, shakily holding the gun on Roberto. She says she recognizes his voice and that he’s the man who led her torture and rape. He denies it vehemently, but Paulina wants revenge.

The questions mount. Is Roberto the guilty man, or is Paulina demented from her experience? If he is guilty, what should be done? Adding to the ferment, Gerardo tells of his infidelities during Paulina’s imprisonment.

Political plays often don’t work because their characters are more symbolic than human. The strength of “Death and the Maiden” (which was the Schubert music Paulina’s torturers played during her agony) is that its characters are both.

Certainly they represent oppressed, oppressor and conciliator, or a nation’s past, present and future, but most of all they seem like people — mere mortals caught up in a crackling story that’s part melodrama, part mystery, part romance.

No script soars, of course, without intelligent acting and directing. For that, credit Douglas Jacobs and a robust threesome headed by Rose Portillo. Her intensity, with its mixture of fright, courage and resolve, made even a couple of line fluffs sound authentic.

Marco Rodriguez captures the dilemma of Gerardo, a good man caught between his love for his wife and his desire for justice, and Walter Krochmal develops the enigma of Roberto, a man to be either pitied or despised.

Equally meritorious is the tech team, notably Jane La Motte’s set and John Martin’s lighting. Michael Roth’s sound adds tension when suitable and makes the title theme beautiful or sinister as necessary, and Judy Watson’s costumes mark the people as well-off.

“Death and the Maiden,” part of the San Diego Rep’s Teatro Sin Fronteras program, is being presented in Spanish and English performances.

La Muerte Y la Doncella Death and the Maiden

(Lyceum Space, San Diego; 250 seats; $ 24 top)

  • Production: San Diego Repertory Theater presents a drama in two acts by Ariel Dorfman produced by San Diego Repertory Theater. Director, Douglas Jacobs; scenic design , Jane La Motte; costumes, Judy Watson.
  • Crew: Lighting, John Martin; sound, Michael Roth.Opened and reviewed May 19; runs through June 12.
  • Cast: Paulina Salas ... Rose Portillo Gerardo Escobar ... Marco Rodriguez Roberto Miranda ... Walter Krochmal
  • Music By: