Death and the Maiden: A Taut Thriller Involving Kidnapping, Rape and Vengeance

The set-up:

Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden won the Olivier award as Best New Play in its 1991 London production, and garnered a Tony Award as Best Actress for Glenn Close in the Broadway production in 1992. It is a taut three-hander involving a woman who had been blindfolded, tortured and raped when kidnapped years earlier by a tyrannical regime; her husband, a prominent attorney who is a human rights activist; and a doctor whom the woman believes to be her rapist.

The execution:

An opening scene establishes Paulina Salas (Malinda L. Beckham) as unhappy, and an early brief scene with her husband Gerardo Escobar (Kevin Daugherty) involves some unpleasant bickering, and presents her as a nagging, cold wife. This is unfortunate, as it is the sole chance for her to display warmth and vulnerability. She soon becomes an avenging force, made powerful by a loaded gun, and as tyrannical as those who imprisoned her.

Daugherty as the husband brings the humanity, and brings as well the news of his appointment to a newly formed government panel to move toward reconciliation - the former military-based fascist government is no more. Daugherty is convincing and compelling, though a scene where he turns avenger is written for melodrama, perhaps overwritten. As Dr. Roberto Miranda, John Stevens brings charm and intelligence to the role, though he has to shed these almost immediately as he is imprisoned at gunpoint and tied to a chair, to be interrogated himself.

The power of these actors carries us through several implausibilities in the script, and in the staging. We wonder how Paulina was able to overpower the physically imposing Dr. Miranda, even with a gun. We wonder that Gerardo doesn't seize any of several opportunities to knock the gun from Paulina's grasp. We wonder that Gerardo too quickly becomes an accomplice to kidnapping, imprisonment and possible assassination, any one of these likely to end his blossoming career. The victims have become the predators.

Despite these uncertainties, the writing is brilliant in keeping alive the suspense of whether Dr. Miranda is in fact the torturer; the question is finally resolved, though with a satisfying ambiguity. The play is staged in three acts, and has a witty epilogue. The writing is powerful - the work is a morality play, echoing Lord Acton's belief that "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely". The power here is a loaded gun.

The play is also an acting challenge, and a vehicle for brilliant performances. We have them here, in that Daugherty and Roberts inhabit their roles, each wearing his like a glove. Beckham carries the narrative, and delivers a forceful personality and a Medea-like thirst for vengeance, but doesn't include the vulnerability that might lead to greater empathy.

Trevor B. Cone directed with exemplary pace, and the staging works well on an attractive, interesting set (a beach house), which has the sky and ocean painted as a backdrop, though some shrubbery or sand between the floor and ocean might have been useful. The play's title comes from the Schubert work the torturer played as he raped Paulina; music and sound are important to the production, and director Cone has designed these well.

The verdict:

A powerful psychological thriller uses violence and menace to generate interest, in a suspense-filled study of vigilante revenge. Death and the Maiden continues through November 16, Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest. For information or ticketing, call 713-661-9505 or contact www.theatresouthwest.org.

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