'Death and the Maiden' doesn't live up to its themes


Can the truth truly set you free? Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman poses this and equally intriguing questions in his political and psychological thriller, "Death and the Maiden."

But despite strong performances by the Vagabond Players' three-member cast, the production never fully surmounts the calculated nature of the script, typified by such leading lines as: "In this country everything finally comes out into the open."

The coincidence-driven plot is as simplistic as the issues it raises are complex. A lawyer's car breaks down. A good Samaritan -- a doctor -- comes to his aid and drives him home. The lawyer's wife thinks she recognizes the doctor as the man who tortured her years ago. She then kidnaps him and interrogates him at gunpoint.

Director Mark E. Campion -- who also designed the attractive beach-house set -- does his best to keep our allegiances shifting, in part by casting the male roles against type. Tony Colavito, who has played his share of heavies, is cast here as the kind, humanitarian lawyer, solicitous of his fragile, ex-mental-patient wife. She is played by Katherine Lyons, first as a timid paranoiac and later as an aggressor bent on revenge. As the doctor and possible torturer, Robert Riggs has a softness in his appearance and his vocal quality.

Watching the husband and wife argue, and then seeing her husband's shock at her changed behavior, makes us doubt the solidity of their relationship -- doubt that builds when he seems to side with the doctor.

Although the first half of the production feels weighted in the doctor's favor, after intermission, the wife's crazed accusations seem increasingly less crazed. One of the most interesting aspects of Dorfman's script, however, is that -- unlike the film version -- the ending is deliberately ambiguous, creating an intricate balance that director Campion wisely does not upset.

Campion, however, would have done well to disregard Dorfman's stage directions calling for a huge mirror to descend on stage in the final scene. An effect reminiscent of that used in "Cabaret," it not only seems like a weak imitation here, it's far too heavy-handed a suggestion that we're all in this together.

The play's title refers to the Schubert quartet the doctor is supposed to have played to calm his torture victims and gain their trust. To Riggs' credit, he initially makes the doctor entirely credible as a gentle, cultured Schubert lover and then makes the same man appear frighteningly worthy of the wrath conveyed by Lyons, who, in turn, seems completely capable of exacting vengeance.

In the afterword to the published script, Dorfman writes that he had the basic plot in mind for years but didn't find the right context for it until democracy returned to Chile in 1990 and the newly elected president appointed a commission that was empowered to investigate crimes by the dictatorship but not to name names or mete out punishment.

By making the lawyer a member of this commission, Dorfman found the specifics that allowed his play to pose such big questions as those dealing with the nature of truth, as well as: How do you deal with the past -- re-live it? Forgive it? Forget it?

The script doesn't specify the setting as Chile, and The Sun's recent series about alleged CIA involvement in human-rights abuses in Honduras in the 1980s seems to extend the play's geographic boundaries. Yet neither its timeliness nor the Vagabonds' earnest efforts are enough to save "Death and the Maiden" from being a play whose issues are ultimately more involving than the action on stage.

'Death and the Maiden'

Where: Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway

When: 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays; through July 23

Tickets: $9 and $10

Call: (410) 563-9135

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