Death and the Maiden, TimeLine Theatre Company. This production includes some fine moments but can’t overcome the fact that Ariel Dorfman’s account of torture in Chile is more earnest than artful. The first requisite of any work aspiring to make comfortable people understand the dynamics of terror is to overcome their defenses, including the impatient feeling that witnesses to the unimaginable must be making it up. Death and the Maiden succeeds in making us flinch without making us understand or believe.

Director Barry Brunetti’s admirably clear, spare production unfortunately magnifies the problem: Mary O’Dowd plays victim Paulina Salas as freshly traumatized, trembling and staring into space. But because the events Salas hopes to avenge happened 15 years earlier, this choice makes her look crazy–prompting exactly the dismissive response that should be avoided. The male actors fare better. As the houseguest accused of Salas’s torture, Thomas Edson McElroy embodies the banality of evil, including the infuriating ability to turn his moral failing into grounds for sympathy. Gary Simmers gives a wonderfully tender performance as Paulina’s husband, a lawyer whose commitment to due process comes to seem nothing more than an expression of impotence.

But the play lets them all down. Not only do its bald descriptions invite disbelief, its interweaving of torture with sexual desire invites the audience to participate in–to fetishize–this woman’s dehumanization.