‘Death and the Maiden’ Review — Sandra Oh Compelling as Torture Victim Forever Facing her Past

Sandra Oh as Paulina Salas in 'Death and the Maiden'

Star of the big and small screens (“Sideways” and “Grey’s Anatomy”), Sandra Oh is also right at home on stage in a role that suits her talents, that of Paulina Salas, a victim of torture who appears to be in perpetual recovery. Although the torture occurred some 15 years earlier during the regime of a dictator modeled after Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet, it continues to shape Paulina’s life in “Death and the Maiden,” playwright Ariel Dorfman’s early 1990s work now at Victory Gardens Theater.

 

Sandra Oh aims a gun John Judd

Oh excels in portraying Paulina’s mercurial nature: at first wraithlike, haunting the edges of the stage in a floating garment (apt costume design by David Hyman); later, hard as steel while aiming a gun at the head of the man she is convinced is her former torturer. Oh’s clipped diction syncs with Dorfman’s provocative script, where language takes center stage and phrases like teensy weensy take on weight. So listen carefully, not only to what is said but also to what is unsaid. For instance, there is no discussion of whether the nail that caused a flat tire that leads to a prominent plot point appeared randomly in the road. The playwright leaves it to the audience to draw its own conclusions.

 

Raúl Castillo, John Judd, Sandra Oh

In a restrained performance that gives free reign to ambiguity, John Judd hits exactly the right note as Dr. Roberto Miranda, the alleged torturer. Paulina has no doubts about his culpability, but her husband, Gerardo Escobar, an official gingerly grabbing for power in the new regime, cautions that they must proceed with prudence. In this three-character play, Gerardo must hold up a crucial leg of the stool. Unfortunately, Raúl Castillo, although physically suited to the role, delivers too many of his lines with a flatness that fails to highlight the fact that by insisting on prudence, Gerardo is being something of a bully himself.

 

Sandra Oh & Raúl Castillo

Most of the elements of the staging work seamlessly to enhance the action. The sound of crashing waves (sound design by Mikhail Fiksel) sets the scene at an oceanfront beach house before any dialog is spoken. Lighting design by Jesse Klug is similarly effective, narrowing time by zeroing in on Paulina and Gerardo when they revisit their past. The beach house set itself, by William Boles, is breathtaking. That it revolves — with intrusive noise — to reveal the exterior of the house is probably unnecessary since action on the periphery could just as well have been revealed with light and sound.

 

Director Chay Yew deserves credit for luring Oh to Chicago and for giving Dorfman’s play the continuing attention it deserves. Victory Gardens is dedicated to producing new plays, but with “Death and the Maiden” the theater introduces its “New Play Classics” series to present contemporary, relevant plays that deserve to be viewed by new audiences. With the aftermath of torture likely to be an ongoing problem, “Death and the Maiden” may remain relevant forever, just as the 1824 Schubert string quartet from which the play borrows its title will be with us for the ages.

 

“Death and the Maiden”

Through July 20, 2014

Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago (free parking at the former Children’s Hospital garage)

Running time: 90+ minutes, with no intermission

Tickets: $45–$70 at 773-871-3000 or Victory Gardens

 

Photos: Michael Courier

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