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Death and the Maiden

It might be the most important play you never saw.

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Ariel Dorfman's political drama Death and the Maiden opened on Broadway in 1992, starring Glenn Close, Gene Hackman and Richard Dreyfuss. The film featured Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley ... and I bet you've never even heard of it, right? Thanks to the new Off the Wall Productions version, we've a chance to figure out why this might be the most important play you never saw.

We're in an unnamed Latin American country where democracy has recently replaced a dictatorship. But Paulina Salas, repeatedly tortured and raped as a political prisoner, is still emotionally trapped in the old days. One night, her husband, Gerardo, brings home a stranger, Roberto, who's helped him with a flat. The next thing you know, Paulina has Roberto bound, gagged and at gunpoint — she's convinced he was one of her captors (although he denies it), and she's going to put him on trial.

You'd figure this oughta be a taut, crackling drama of shifting allegiances and surprising revelations — and while it is, it's also really not. Given the Chilean Dorfman's international stature as a human-rights activist, he obviously wasn't writing a mere thriller. He's got a lot to say about evil, forgiveness and justice.

The problem is that he stops the thriller to start the geopolitical discussions; often Paulina and Gerardo sit and discuss the nature of redemption ... with a genocidal madmen tied up in the living room. Each half of the play blunts the momentum of the other, and neither feels complete. This might be why such an important work is rarely revived. (It's been produced in Pittsburgh only once before in the last 20 years.)

Director Maggie Balsley has cleverly assembled an impressively talented cast: Adrienne Wehr, Mark D. Staley and Ken Bolden. They were a little jittery the night I attended, circling the subtextual pain rather than delving in. But even so, flashes of strong theatricality abound with promise of much more as their performances ripen.

I know y'all like your farces about marital infidelity, but you really need to see Death and the Maiden — if for no other reason than to be reminded of a time when it was other countries who tortured their prisoners.

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