It’s summertime and the livin’ is supposed to be easy. That usually extends to the arts: lots of pops concerts, mindless Hollywood blockbusters, and breezy “let’s forget our troubles” theatre. Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy took the bold step to swim against the tide and produce Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, a deathly serious drama that deals with universal themes such as the nature of revenge and redemption, torture, and repressive regimes: definitely not an evening to munch on popcorn while your mind goes on vacation.

Dorfman, Distinguished Professor of Literature and Latin American Studies at Duke University since 1985, was forced into exile following the Chilean military coup in 1973. Written in 1990, Death and the Maiden is scrupulous in not actually naming any countries or persons, but that is done with a nod and a wink: this is certainly about Chile’s repressive military dictatorship during the 1970s and the “truth” commissions set up following the return of a civilian democratic government.

Even the best of us have had thoughts of revenge. What would you do if a person who has caused you great harm and physical abuse, through a series of coincidences literally walks into your home? This three-person play deals with that scenario. Paulina Salas (Benji Taylor Jones) is a survivor of torture and rape at the hands of the military government, and particularly Roberto Miranda (David McClutchey), a sadistic doctor. She is married to Gerardo (Alan Campbell), an attorney who has just met with the newly-elected president and has been appointed to head the commission that will investigate the crimes of the previous regime. Gerardo has a flat tire on his way home, then Miranda stops to help and eventually ends up at Gerardo and Paulina’s home. Although she was blindfolded during her months of torture, she immediately recognizes the voice of their visitor and the sadistic Dr. Miranda as being the same. Once he is asleep, she drags him into the living room, binds him to a chair and gags him (the one part of the play where you need to suspend disbelief that Miranda would not have awakened).

What follows is a detailed recounting of the horrors of Paulina’s torture, her accusations against the visitor/doctor, her arguments with her husband Gerardo regarding the guilt/innocence of the “prisoner,” and the moral and practical considerations of revenge and how this would affect his career and possibly even the structure of the new commissions and the country itself. It is a fascinating, compelling, and wholly engrossing examination of the nature of justice and how society and individuals differ when dealing with crime and punishment.

Before the play begins, and during brief set breaks, guitar music of Villa-Lobos plays as if to remind us that although the country is unnamed, we are somewhere in South America. The title of the play comes from the fact that during Paulina’s torture, Miranda played Schubert, particularly the string quartet Death and the Maiden. One of the minor side effects of her horrible experience is that she can no longer listen to Schubert.

The play runs about one hour and forty-five minutes, without an intermission. Although that may be a bit long, it would have been dramatic suicide to have broken the nearly unceasing tension and conflict. The sets are well-crafted, and changes are done with subdued lighting and several stage hands simply making the transformations in front of everyone. Director Adam Twiss gives a taut, well-paced, and incredibly realistic evening of heightened emotional conflagrations. There is not one slack moment where your attention even dares to waver.

This was a virtuosic trio performance of acting the likes of which I have not seen for quite a long time. With all due respect to Sigourney Weaver, who played Paulina in the 1994 film directed by Roman Polanski, Benji Taylor Jones puts that performance to shame. Jones was Tony-award worthy as you never once doubted her emotional roller coaster ride as she fought with herself, her husband, and her captor as to what is the “right” thing to do. Alan Campbell as Gerardo beautifully portrayed the “voice of reason” – or was he merely a selfish coward protecting his new career? In addition to his superb acting, David McClutchey as Dr. Miranda had the unenviable task of being bound and gagged for lengthy periods of time. This was no stage trick. He was literally gagged with a cloth in his mouth and bound by several layers of duct tape.

For 98% of the play we went through constant confrontations, accusations, and highly intense drama, so it is indeed ironic that the brief coda after the cliff-hanging apex was the most placid, but also the most horrifying. No spoiler here – you’ll have to see for yourself.

There is some very rough language but it is all absolutely essential to the story. This has been placed near or at the top of my ten-best theatrical productions of 2010, so
take a break from the summer fast food and go experience a nearly perfect theatrical event.

Death and the Maiden continues through August 1 and then resumes August 4-8. For details, see our calendar.