This past weekend, the ’62 Center’s CenterStage was transformed into a South American living room for Death and the Maiden, directed by Casey York ’10 for her senior honors project. With an intricate plotline and skillful acting, the play explored a romance caught in the crosshairs of sweeping political change. The twists and turns of this political thriller were rooted in the human condition in the aftermath of suffering.
Written in 1990 by Chilean playwright and activist Ariel Dorfman, Death and the Maiden was inspired by his experiences under the dictatorship in Chile. Dorfman fled his homeland after the 1973 coup. “A fragile democracy is strengthened by expressing for all to see the deep dramas and sorrows and hopes that underlie its existence and that it is not by hiding the damage we have inflected on ourselves that we will avoid its repetition,” he once said, as quoted in the program.
Death and the Maiden took place almost exclusively in the living room of a beach house. In the opening scene, Paulina Salas (Lauren Young ’10) looks out from her balcony towards an imaginary ocean, with the sound of waves crashing in the background. Such ambient sound effects added minimal, impressionistic touches that asked the audience’s imagination to do the work. Soon her husband Gerardo Escobar (Jonathan Draxton ’12) arrives. The couple’s argument escalates as the subject moves from a mere flat tire to the deep-seated rifts in their otherwise loving marriage. Gerardo suddenly reveals that the president has appointed him to a post on the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, making a show of asking for Paulina’s approval before admitting that he already accepted. Paulina’s convincingly manic laughter at her husband’s mention of resolving “crimes against humanity” is the first of several hints that she is relapsing into an unstable mental state for reasons rooted in her past. In their embraces and tones of voice, Young and Draxton shared a natural chemistry that made their troubled relationship believable, even as the plot rose to near-melodramatic peaks.
Afterwards, Gerardo answers his doorbell in the middle of the night and unexpectedly finds Dr. Roberto Miranda (Michael Leon ’11). Leon produced a credibly awkward earnestness for his role, shifting and hesitating as if trying to squirm out of honest interaction. Gerardo, unaware that Dr. Miranda had raped Paulina years ago, convinces him to stay until morning. That night Paulina confronts Dr. Miranda with a gun and rope, drags his gagged and bounded body to a chair and ties him there, producing the play’s iconic image.
The interplay between Young, Draxton and Leon made for an electrifying dynamic of anguish in the scope of past tragedy. As Paulina, Young would smoothly and without warning transition from insanity to lucidity, generating startled laughter from the audience more than once. Draxton realistically portrayed how his rational character could snap under the pressure of persuading Dr. Miranda to indulge the madwoman with a false confession, particularly when threatening to kill a reluctant Dr. Miranda. Leon, on the other hand, exuded a sliminess of character that suggested either his terror or his guilt. Eventually Dr. Miranda “confesses” to his participation in the former regime, and Leon’s acting-within-acting morphs his role from that of the bystander into the complex villain.
The theme of confession arose as the cast extracted painful truths from one another. Throughout the play, previously spoken lines were replayed over a cassette recorder to create a powerful retrospective impact. Whether intensifying Paulina’s madness as she wrestled with her demons or bluntly repeating Miranda’s confession to both actors and audience, the cassette player turned the stage into a courtroom filled with testimonies. The device itself became a harshly objective narrator of contrasting viewpoints, representing how heavily reflected truth weighs when taken out of its original context. Under York’s direction, the versatile cast skillfully portrayed the tension of strained human relationships, focusing on ways to jar those watching into shock or anticipation. Her interpretation of Death and the Maiden pushed those who remained reluctant to grapple with uncomfortable truths.
Gerardo’s remark to Paulina, “We will die from so much past, so much pain … people can die from excessive doses of the truth,” also answered the question York posed in the program, “What is the nature of truth and justice?” York remarked, Death and the Maiden itself “functions as a Truth and Reconciliation Commission because it exposes painful memories in order to help the victims in their healing process, and to prevent future acts of terror.”