PITTSFIELD -- In an age where oversimplification and frivolity are more and more commonplace, the New Stage Performing Arts Center is establishing a niche among audiences with a different focus.
Its production of Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman's psychological thriller, "Death and the Maiden," which began performances Thursday and runs through July 1, is the third in a run of socially minded plays produced by the company.
"Part of what has been so fun about the last two years has been establishing the creative direction of the company," said Nicki Wilson, New Stage artistic director. "We work with an amazing assortment of local talent who are constantly inspiring us to try new things and take on projects that we never would have thought of doing."
Dorfman's play deals with the scars left as a country transitions from tyranny to democracy, which Wilson said is particularly appropriate now given the dictatorships that are being challenged across the world.
The play, informed by Dorfman's life under the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, is set at a beach house in a newly democratic country that has just overthrown its leader.
Under the former regime, the play's protagonist, Paulina Salas, was blindfolded, tortured and raped. Years later, when Paulina's husband Gerardo brings home a new friend, she recognizes the man's voice as that of her torturer. And she goes to drastic measures to prove it.
New Stage's production, which opened June 14 and runs through July 1, stars Deann Halper, as Paulina, Gary Cookson as Gerardo, Marc Geller as Dr. Roberto Miranda and is directed by Normi Noel.
In a broad sense, Noel said during a joint interview with Halper following a recent rehearsal, the play requires people to consider what "lulls us into a strange sleep" and blinds them to the problems of the world.
"When are we going to get out into the streets?" she asked rhetorically. "What is it that makes us come out into the streets and say, ‘poverty is not OK, the minimum wage really should be at 35 bucks an hour, we do need a health system, television should not be used as a drug to quiet us.' "
Noel said she has opted to set the play in 1990s Chile but, given the political turmoil in many countries these days, the play has far more universal reach.
"I recognize as a world citizen that it behooves me to know that my Syrian family, and my Burmese family things are changing, things are happening, people are suffering," said Noel. "It has made a real difference in my awareness of my position as a human and as an artist."
Halper, too, said the play certainly has broad impact.
"I think the question at the end (of the play) is, ‘Is the humanity ruined,' " she said.
Artists have a responsibility to present challenging questions about life and society in a theatrical setting, Noel says, because it then requires the audience to consider how they would respond in such circumstances.
"It is a wonderful warning in this play," Noel said. "For me it has a lot to do with the fear that resides in a patriarchal society that is afraid of feelings. You bury those feelings and you rule through power you have a lot to pay for."
And how best to account for the past and respond to it in the present, both Noel and Halper agreed, is left up to the audience to explore.
Wilson said "Death and the Maiden" ties together the themes of New Stage's two most recent productions, Ed ward Bernstein's "The Trial of Franklin Delano Roosevelt" and Yasmine Beverly Rana's "Blood Sky."
"(This play) speaks politically to what happens in the wake of the transition from tyranny to democracy, and especially what's been happening in the wake of the Arab Spring over the last year," said Wilson. "And it also speaks to a lot of the social issues that ‘Blood Sky' raised, of how victims of abuse deal with their emotional wounds and try to seek closure, which I think is something that everyone on some level can relate to."
Noel said she is struck by how the play has forced her to confront a harsh and disturbing reality about some governments.
"It feels like, ‘well that could never happen to us,' which is ridiculous," she said, "because it flips once and you are in it I am very aware of that."
What: "Death and the Maiden" by Ariel Dorfman
When: Now through July 1. Eves.: Thu.-Sat. 8. Mats.: Sun. 3
Where: New Stage Performing Arts Center, 55 North St., Pittsfield
How: (413) 418-0999; www.newstageperforming arts.org