It’s hard to put your finger on what is so grotesque about Ariel Dorfman’s “Widows” until near the end of the play, when a child is executed. At that point, it becomes much easier to snap out of the trance state an evening at the theater sometimes induces and realize you are, in fact, being jerked around by someone more interested in inflaming passions than in making theater. “Care!” Dorfman seems to scream, and, as a consequence, we don’t.
It’s awkward to have to say this, because the play’s heavy-handed politics are unassailable. Dorfman, a Chilean playwright and novelist best known for “Death and the Maiden,” who was exiled during the Pinochet regime, wants to tell the world about los desaparecidos — “the disappeared” people who voiced opposition to tyranny and were then spirited away, probably to torture and death.
This practice has been reported on and lamented in totalitarian regimes all over the globe, so Dorfman strives for universalism with “Widows,” never naming the country or village in which he sets his story (the playwright based the play on his own novel, which takes place in Greece).
In its early moments, “Widows” recalls “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” or “Man Equals Man,” and you can’t help but hope Dorfman is going to use the precise tools that Brecht, another writer who wanted to change things, fashioned and demonstrated more than half a century ago. But when laughingly innocent children cavort through the first scenes in Dorfman’s play to the dulcet tones of an acoustic guitar, not all bodes well for subtlety.
As “Widows” opens, the leathery Sofia Fuentes (Ching Valdes-Aran) sits by the river with the other women of the village, spouting oracular wisdom and waiting for the men (father, husband, sons) who have been taken from her. Everyone, it turns out, has lost somebody, but Sofia is most thoroughly destroyed by her deprivation, and when a corpse floats down the river, she immediately claims it as her own.
Director Hal Brooks has some cool-looking stagecraft up his sleeve, and the magical-seeming presence of the dead, desecrated body is certainly a shock to the system and a great atmospheric tool. But after the corpse is taken away by the Captain (Mark Aldaheff, trying his hardest), it becomes clear Brooks can formulate the ideas, but he can’t actually fit them together into a plan of attack.
Other snippets of the play are successful — some wonderfully so, as when every woman in town comes to claim an unidentified body by breaking bread over it. But they stay weighed down by the logistical weirdnesses of Wilson Chin’s convoluted set and a general malaise about the direction in which the depressing plot is headed.
Most of the play, though, is torpedoed not by Brooks but by Dorfman, who, along with writing some of the least speakable lines in recent memory, is set on grinding into us the understanding that totalitarianism is Bad, that it is carried out by Bad People, and that anyone who consorts with those people becomes Bad by default.
Perhaps it’s not easy to write about murderers and torturers with any degree of nuance, but if anyone can do it, that person should be Dorfman. Maybe next time, he’ll give it a shot.