Pictured: Vanessa Severo and Rusty Sneary. Photo by Brian Paulette.
By Bec Pennington
The curtain is open, the sounds of waves crashing on the beach and the undulating shoreline glowing behind windows in the background, but the lights are not fully up. The shadowy figure of a woman scrambles across the stage to turn out the remaining lights and cower in the corner, her overwhelming fear palpable even in the dark. As a door opens and a second character appears, turning on light switches as he traverses the scene, we realize there is no threat of danger, only the woman’s lingering worry flashing to angry accusation. Ariel Dorfman’s DEATH AND THE MAIDEN sets us up right away for tension and uncertainty, carefully and patiently unpacking the story in stages.
Paulina, our fearful central character, is portrayed grippingly by Vanessa Severo as she engages the opportunity to confront the man she believes tortured and assaulted her years ago. Rusty Sneary’s compassionate Gerardo is her husband, torn between hope for facilitating the reconciliation of his torn country and concern for his wife’s sanity if he succeeds. Robert Gibby Brand is the accused Roberto who is forced into a mental war with the mad woman. He is sometimes suspiciously snide, at other times sympathetically desperate. Throughout the duration, we as an audience are asked to make judgement without all the facts. We naturally want a good guy and a bad guy so we know clearly who we’re rooting for, but the writer has no intentions of letting us off this easily. Paulina is paranoid and delusional; we’re also nagged with the possibility that she may be right. And even if she is both, we must ask ourselves what conclusion could possibly correct a situation such as this.
Cinnamon Schultz masterfully directs this delicate story with perfect pacing, and Gary Mosby’s very realistic and useful set is coordinated perfectly with Shane Rowse’s precise and subtly balanced lighting. It is the mark of success to be able to so cleanly build the whole picture that the viewer is free to focus on the main point. Though the potentially triggering subject matter is difficult to portray, every aspect of this effort from Kansas City Actors Theatre rings true. One note to the production staff; a warning at the beginning of the evening about the startling gunshot might be a good idea.
Concerning his award-winning script, Ariel Dorfman reflected in 2011 that he didn’t consider the global application during the writing of it, but the struggle is all-encompassingly human, applicable to all people in the aftermath of private and public conflict. The play doesn’t provide answers as much as simply point out the problem, one we each must eventually ask ourselves: How do we reconcile the rage and pain of unrealized justice with the need for peace?
DEATH AND THE MAIDEN runs through the 27th of this month at the Union Station City Stage. For more information visit kcactors.org.