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'Death and the Maiden' offers ambiguous truth

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Live Theatre Workshop

'Death and the Maiden' offers ambiguous truth

A taut, disturbing drama set against a political backdrop

  • Cynthia Jeffery and Keith Wick in 'Death and the Maiden.'
    Live Theatre WorkshopCynthia Jeffery and Keith Wick in 'Death and the Maiden.'
  • Cynthia Jeffery, Cliff Madison and Keith Wick in 'Death and the Maiden.'
    Live Theatre WorkshopCynthia Jeffery, Cliff Madison and Keith Wick in 'Death and the Maiden.'
  • Cynthia Jeffery in 'Death and the Maiden.'
    Live Theatre WorkshopCynthia Jeffery in 'Death and the Maiden.'

As we exited the Sunday matinee performance of Live Theatre Workshop's "Death and the Maiden," a season ticket holder who had seen me taking notes confronted me. After verifying that I was, indeed, a local theatre critic, she said, agitated, "Well, then, can you explain that ending for me?"

I replied, "It was a coda designed to reinforce the ambiguity of the preceding action. It may have been reality, which means that everyone lived happily ever after. It may have been a dream, casting doubt on the proximate outcome or the entire narrative."

"I don't think the ending was intended to necessarily clarify or resolve the play," I cautioned.

"Well, I still don't understand it," she said as we shuffled out.

"Death and the Maiden" by Ariel Dorfman is not a play given to easy or prepackaged answers. By design, it forces us to examine our own ideas of truth (Truth?) and justice. Given the complexity of those subjects, any glib or obvious conclusions are necessarily suspect.

The play is a psychological thriller set against a political backdrop. Its setting points to the turmoil in South American countries during the 1970s, when thousands of left-wing suspects were rounded up by right-wing militia on a vague charge of subversion, tortured and, in many cases, killed without trial or any due process.

The play's instructions say, however, that it takes place "in any country that has given itself a democratic government just after a long period of dictatorship." In other words, this is a morality play, not a history lesson.

The play's three characters are Paulina, who survived her capture and torture, but is still deeply scarred psychologically; her husband Gerardo, a lawyer who has just been named to head a presidential commission to investigate those crimes; and Roberto, a physician who helped Gerardo after car troubles.

Paulina is unhealed from her trauma. Raped, humiliated, tortured, she has tried for years to return to a normal life to no avail. Her torturer, a doctor, played a recording of Schubert's string quartet, "Death and the Maiden," in the background, which has left her unable to stomach any of Schubert's music.

Gerardo is at the peak of his career and on a moral high. He will finally be able to bring the rule of law to bear on people who acted as if they were above the law, who believed that any means necessary to maintain the social order, including ironically, rape, torture and murder, was justified.

The catch is that Gerardo's charge is limited to investigating only cases which resulted in death; the horrific crimes committed against his own wife will be beyond his jurisdiction. Nonetheless, he recognizes that while incomplete, this marks a major step towards addressing the violent injustices of the past.

When Gerardo brings the doctor into the house after their random roadside meeting, Paulina becomes obsessed that Roberto is the man who supervised her degradation fifteen years prior. However, she never saw his face, so she has only weak evidence – her long-suppressed memory of her torturer's voice and scent. Certain that this doctor is that man, she assaults and kidnaps him at gunpoint to face a private trial in which she will act as prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner, after he is forced to confess to his crimes, an eerie echo of her own treatment, though she can not see the irony. In a mockery of fair judicial process, she assigns Gerardo to represent the accused. Even if she is correct, Gerardo can see his career, as well as his wife's sanity, slipping away.

Both Gerardo's and Paulina's dreams of justice spawn a nightmare. Without giving too much away, amid all of the moral debate and righteousness, we are never presented with evidence that would meet legal standards. What we do see is Paulina's self-certainty in the context of the flawed logic of her case.

Despite Paulina's certainty, the audience can not dispel reasonable doubt about the doctor's guilt. In the end, we can not even be sure what has happened. Ambiguity rules. Maybe it was all a "Who-Shot-J.R." scale dream. When shots are fired in the dark to unknown effect, perhaps Paulina has killed the doctor and maybe even herself, as she threatened. Perhaps, his coerced confession in hand, she is able to resume her interrupted life, as we next see Gerardo and Paulina amiably sitting side-by-side with Roberto and his son at a concert.

That ambiguous next-to-last scene, however, is further undercut by the final scene in the coda when Paulina falls asleep in a chair. Roberto hovers over her before gently kissing her on the head, closing the play with a vision of equivocal surrealism that my fellow patron found so perturbing.

The play contains very strong language, including graphic descriptions of sexual violence. Live Theatre Workshop cautions that the work is intended for mature audiences only.

Directed by Chris Wilken, "Death and the Maiden" is a taut, disturbing drama. Cynthia Jeffery as Paulina, the tragic heroine, skillfully walks a line between justifiable rage and hallucinatory insanity. Cliff Madison does well as her foil, Gerardo, a man who anchors his life in reason and facts, and a husband who willfully underestimates the severity of the damage to his spouse. Most critically, Keith Wick as Roberto manages to look innocent yet feel guilty. Playing in subtle shades of gray, he is able to simultaneous sustain perceptions that he may be an innocent victim or a heinous criminal. Or he may be a guilty victim or a repentant criminal – we can never be sure from his behavior.

As a political work, "Death and the Maiden" demonstrates how a government undermines its own legitimacy by abusing the rights of its citizens. It shows how justice disappears when the rule of law is circumvented, no matter how good the intentions or how desirable the ends.

As drama, it fiercely articulates the horror of torture at a personal and intimate level. But mostly, "Death and A Maiden" makes us think: what constitutes justice? What is the truth (Truth)? What would we do if our loved one were taken away by the State and returned so damaged, if returned at all? Throughout, director Wilken never simply hands over the key for answering these questions, requiring us to forge our own interpretations.

If you go

  • What: “Death and the Maiden,” presented by Live Theatre Workshop
  • When: Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through April 22
  • Where: Live Theatre Workshop, 5317 E. Speedway
  • Tickets: $18 with discounts available. For reservations, call 327-4242 or email

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