Saturday June 30, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- Paulina Salas, the pivotal character in "Death and the Maiden," Ariel Dorfman's intellectually engaging chamber trio of a play which is being given a respectable production at New Stage Performing Arts Center, defines "walking wounded" -- and in deeply profound ways.

The setting is Chile in the mid-1990s; the beach house shared by Paulina (a riveting and compelling Deann Halper) and her husband, a rising lawyer named Gerardo Escobar (Gary Cookson in a somewhat fitful performance). Fifteen years earlier, Paulina was abducted on the street by the Chilean government's police; held, tortured, raped repeatedly and relentlessly interrogated by a sadistic man she knows only by voice.

Now, with her husband appointed to head a commission charged with looking into the deaths and disappearances of hundreds of prisoners during that dark, dangerous time, Paulina suddenly hears that voice again. It's coming from a good samaritan in her living room who is spending the night after having come to her husband's aid on the road.

Paulina knocks him out, binds him to a chair and, when he wakes up, accuses him of having been her rapist and tormentor. At gunpoint, she warns him, and her disbelieving, incredulous husband, that he will not leave her house until he confesses.

"Death and the Maiden" raises a host of questions -- philosophical, moral, political -- but Dorfman's sense of drama and theater does not always keep pace with the vigor of his intellect.


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Dorf man's dramatic lapses are compensated for by director Normi Noel's skills and the performances she has extracted from her actors, beginning with Halper's go-for-broke Paulina and moving on to Marc Geller's wily, is-he-or-isn't-he Dr. Roberto Miranda, and a less consistently engaged, less certain Cookson.

Dorfman packs his play, almost to the breaking point, with issues and he throws in a twist or two near the end that are a bit too convenient and pat. But even in the midst of Ben Elliott's way too dark lighting, director Normi Noel and her cast find enough light to make this theatrical venture stimulating and engaging.