Raul Castillo, John Judd, and Sandra Oh
Raul Castillo, John Judd, and Sandra Oh Credit: Michael Courier

Well, that was unexpected.

I had reason to be happy when I heard that Victory Gardens Theater would be doing Death and the Maiden, grim as it is. The 1991 drama by Chilean-American writer Ariel Dorfman is a sharply wrought, ruthlessly truthful look at state terror such as was practiced in Chile under Pinochet and in Argentina during the “dirty war.” An indictment structured (perversely, cunningly) as a Sleuth-style mystery, Death and the Maiden needs and deserves to be produced on a regular basis—and Victory Gardens artistic director Chay Yew planned to produce it with an intriguing cast, including Grey’s Anatomy star Sandra Oh as Paulina, a woman who was tortured by agents of a Latin American junta, and local treasure John Judd as the man she accuses of carrying out unspeakable crimes against her. What’s not to, uh, like?

Pretty much everything, as it turns out. The show was embarrassingly sloppy on opening night, with weirdly negligent blocking, loads (loads!) of dropped lines, pacing so far off that the performance went a half hour longer than expected, moments of downright inscrutability, and a rotating set by William Boles that looked cool but generated a distracting amount of noise. Raúl Castillo made a bewildering mess of Geraldo, Paulina’s successful, supposedly sophisticated husband, turning him into a slow-witted naif. Worst of all, Oh played Paulina, unrelentingly, as a kind of mopey Medea, her face frozen in a slack version of the tragedy mask. While the approach is bold in its way and capable of imparting a sense of dangerous, possibly crazed implacability every now and then, its very purity became tedious over time. Oh’s Paulina is a woman without irony or ambiguity, tenderness or even modulations in her rage. Ultimately, she’s a foregone conclusion—and therefore uninteresting.