Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Freud said that an unfinished task is never forgotten. And if that task is justice, it can’t be: there’s no statute of limitations for crimes against humanity. Yet whenever democracy replaces despotism, as it has in Spain, Argentina, and South Africa, good souls invariably argue the need to forget, to put the past behind them–to forgive rather than seek vengeance, and offer amnesty to those corrupted by too much power.

But such forgiveness assumes a moral eminence verging on arrogance. Who, besides God and the silenced victims, can forgive the horrors of the Holocaust? Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman asks a similar question: Who can pardon the Pinochet junta, a dictatorship that from 1973 to 1990 inflicted torture and worse on thousands of innocents? And whether the patriotic assassins are pardoned or punished, how can we ensure that their evil won’t infect the future?

In his 1991 play Death and the Maiden Dorfman attempts to dramatize the dilemma that faces Chile–or any country that wants to bury a murderous past without forgetting the unforgivable. As he asks, not at all rhetorically, in the play’s afterword, “How can those who tortured and those who were tortured co-exist in the same land?” And Dorfman suggests that an implacable hatred may be as terrible as any pragmatic, guilt-ridden forgiveness.

Death and the Maiden depicts one woman’s personal quest for justice. It’s set in the home of Gerardo Escobar, a rising official in Chile’s newly restored democracy, and his wife Paulina Salas, a former political prisoner and the victim of rape and torture during the recent dictatorship. A liberal crusader and well-intentioned social engineer, Gerardo has been named to a commission to investigate the abuses of the previous regime; he hopes that the commission will mete out some kind of “moral sanction”–without, of course, triggering a backlash from the ever-lethal army. But in this microcosm of a divided nation Paulina is living proof that serious abuses happened, and in her unhealed heart they continue to happen.

Late one night Paulina overhears her husband talking to someone whose voice she has not forgotten–Dr. Roberto Miranda, the creature who raped and tortured her while playing, as an indication of his culture, Schubert’s sweet quartet “Death and the Maiden.” Like the rape victim in William Mastrosimone’s Extremities, she takes a calculated revenge, assaulting the man and tying him up on a chair, in the same position in which she was interrogated 18 years before.

If at first we don’t know whether Paulina’s suspicions are correct, it’s because criminals against humanity, unlike their victims, don’t wear identifying brands. Paulina at first seems the classic paranoiac, then a modern Fury. She can cleanse her world only by eliminating the man who sought to destroy it; repudiating amnesty for him, she demands not just confession but repentance. To get it she’ll conduct her own trial. But she’ll give Roberto more due process than she got: Gerardo will serve as Roberto’s defense counsel.

Caught between them, Gerardo fears that Paulina has sunk to the level of her enemy, that her vigilantism (or, as he puts it belittlingly, her “therapy”) may destroy his chance to remedy the abuses, and that her example will stir the fascists to a counterrevolution. For him reason is paramount, a private revenge cannot serve the public good, and his wife’s absolutist passion is–well, unseemly. In one pungent (if characteristically misogynistic) remark, trying to excuse Paulina as a “silly girl,” Gerardo unwittingly indicts an entire nation’s acceptance of tyranny: “When crazy people have power you have to indulge them.”

Throughout the play Roberto’s guilt remains a tantalizing mystery–which means that it’s the audience, not Paulina, who must convict him. Artfully Dorfman makes us wonder how much of what Roberto confesses is the result of coaching by Gerardo (who heard about the events from Paulina). But in the end his guilt doesn’t matter: the innocence of everyone who lived during the tyranny is conditional. And when Roberto says his worst punishment is his conscience, you have to wonder if that’s enough: the 20th century has been one long saga of moral malleability.

Given the combustibility of the crisis Dorfman depicts, it’s amazing how often he manages to avoid the conflicts we anticipate. Rare moments of genuine confrontation, as when Paulina mocks her enemy’s misogynist curses, are more than balanced by exchanges that dilute rather than feed tension, as when Paulina gets angry at Gerardo’s infidelity when she was a prisoner.

But then Death and the Maiden is a schematic, careful work, a sort of illustrated lecture. For all its gun-wielding sensationalism and gallows humor, the playwright’s intention is to talk an ugly, intractable subject into seeming submission. Typically evasive is the cynical ending, which suggests that Paulina’s vigilantism has damaged neither her husband’s career nor Roberto’s reputation. There are even moments when Death seems a surreal sitcom, as it spoofs Paulina’s crazy-lady excesses as if she were Lucille Ball toting some magnum force.

A similar unevenness hobbles Randall Arney’s staging, a Steppenwolf Theatre Company midwest premiere. Like the script, it never quite ignites. John Mahoney plays Roberto as yet another example of the banality of evil, a beaten man whose protestations of innocence seem one more shameless ruse; his resignation siphons off tension from the play’s few clashes. Gary Cole gives the mediator Gerardo dignity and even desperation. Still, the character hardly seems crucial–he’s supposed to put out fires but none have been kindled.

Rondi Reed suffers most from the combination of an unfocused play and a less than urgent production. Her Paulina seems to have put the pain behind her just a bit too soon–her revenge has the flavor of business as usual, as if she’s somehow gotten used to it. Paulina must show us something more contagious, like a gleeful triumph at turning the tables or at righting an old wrong. Reed’s vengeance seems steeped in abstraction, unsettled in its intent–it’s too easy to see her actions as an actor’s exercise.

In this dutiful revival of a decent but inert script Steppenwolf once again offers a production that seems far more radical at first sight than it really is.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.