Play offers a 'compelling snapshot' of a broken society
Death and the Maiden is not an easy play to watch, particularly if you are not accustomed to raw language and themes – and equally raw emotions – on the White Rock community theatre stage.
But with Peninsula Productions' limited-run presentation of Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman's symbolic psychological thriller, Death and the Maiden (tonight until Saturday), the local theatre scene takes another bold step forward out of community theatre's usual comfort zone of clever mysteries and folksy comedies.
Judging by Tuesday's dress rehearsal, this is a must-see for those who appreciate acting that digs below the surface, as well as arguments that challenge pre-conceived moral beliefs.
There's nothing comforting about this play – or the strong, uncompromising performances of Lori Tych, Ben Odberg and Guy Fauchon.
Indeed Dorfman's modus is to present comforts we may take for granted – food, home, a warm bed, a favourite classical recording – and undermine them, destroy them, make them meaningless.
In the play, Schubert's String Quartet No. 14 in D minor – a well-loved staple of the chamber music repertoire (known as Death and the Maiden) – was also the deceptively benign music that served as a prelude to acts of torture and rape on political prisoners committed by a doctor retained as a 'consultant' by the brutal ruling regime.
Dorfman's vision is a diagram of a country in turmoil, even 15 years after the atrocities that tore it apart. As everyday people struggle to put their lives back together, the question is whether they can ever forgive and forget neighbours who were either actively or passively complicit in the crimes.
In Wendy Bollard's well-directed production, on an effectively minimalistic yet symbolic set by her husband, Andy Sorensen, the insidious erosion of comfort levels begins deceptively and early.
The bantering conversation between Paulina Salas (Tych) and husband Gerardo (Odberg) over his frustrated efforts to fix a flat tire – she had lent their jack to her mother – might be lifted from a farce. But already there is an edge underlying their words – an edge that becomes razor sharp when the man who helped Gerardo drops by for a late-night chat.
Paulina believes that she recognizes Dr. Roberto Miranda (played with by Fauchon as an innately sensitive and cultured man) is actually the man who brutalized her.
And although Gerardo has just been appointed to a presidential commission to investigate the crimes of the past, Paulina becomes intent on her own form of justice – binding Roberto and holding him at gunpoint, brutalizing and humiliating him, determined to force a confession from him.
As a believer in justice, Gerardo is forced into the position of defending the man, while abhorring the crimes.
Odberg makes Gerardo an emotional, credible, believably flawed individual, and his intense, sincere playing reaches its peak when Paulina confronts him with truths about their own relationship.
Tych also does fine work walking a tightrope between the jagged fragments of Paulina's life – memories of the nightmarish abuses of her imprisonment, the things she valued and what they have become, her battle between love and distrust of Gerardo, even the guilt she feels for being too easily victimized, all come to life in her face, voice and physical presence.
Given the volatility of the others, Fauchon succeeds in giving the anchoring performance to the play – an excellently contained performance that carries conviction even when he is bound and gagged, mutely and helplessly trussed at center stage.
Just as Dorfman pulls no punches in presenting the basic problem, he gives no easy outs for the audience. But he does offer a compelling snapshot of a dysfunctional society – whether 1970s Chile or perhaps closer to home – that must, for its own survival, struggle to overcome the past.
Death and the Maiden – 8 p.m. at Coast Capital Playhouse – is presented with a warning of extremely strong language and mature themes.
Tickets ($23, $18 students/seniors, plus service charges) are available from 604-536-7535, or online at www.peninsulaproductions.org