- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 9, 2002

"Death and the Maiden," playing at Theater J, raises an all important question: Does vengeance give closure?

A satisfying answer is never given maybe because there is none.

But during the two-hour play, philosophical and emotional meanderings about forgiveness versus retribution give us plenty to think about even the next day.

Paulina Escobar, played skillfully by Paula Gruskiewicz, was tortured many years ago, during a repressive regime in an unnamed South American nation.

Through a strange, and not very believable, coincidence, her torturer, Dr. Roberto Miranda, played convincingly by Mitchell Hebert, is invited into Paulina's house by her unaware husband and spends the night.

Paulina, whose emotional wounds from the torture have barely begun to heal, ties the doctor to a chair in his sleep and gags him with, well, her underwear.

She wants the doctor, at gunpoint, to confess that he, indeed, was her torturer. She wants him to repent and show remorse so she can go on with her life.

And she wants to be able to listen to Schubert's "Death and the Maiden," without wincing (the doctor played the music for string quartet during torture sessions to calm himself and coerce malleability in his prisoners/patients).

Paulina's husband, Gerardo Escobar, played with an energetic and nervous edge by John Lescault, wonders who he should believe.

He's been offered a minister's post with the new regime and doesn't want to ruffle any feathers. At the same time, he has cheated on his wife in the past actually while she was being tortured for refusing to give up information about him and feels emotionally indebted to her.

This two-hour ball of anxiety takes place on Theater J's small stage with few changes of the costumes designed by Susan Chiang and no set changes. Paulina's character wears a blue, knit dress that could double as a nightgown. The two men wear contemporary khaki pants and shirts.

The set, by James Kronzer, consists of four chairs in the foreground, eerily resembling an interrogation room, and a brick structure in the background. The structure looks like a ruin of an old Roman aqueduct, possibly hinting at the ancient Roman and Greek tradition of sacrificing maidens to please the gods.

The light design, by Dan Conway, is terrific, allowing the anguished faces, especially Paulina's, to pierce and glow through the otherwise dark set.

And, the music, "The Death and the Maiden" by Schubert, is played, hauntingly, each time the anguished Paulina suffers the stabs of her unpleasant past.

With this scarcity of visual interest in the form of set and costume changes, it falls on the actors to retell, as opposed to play out, the horrific events of the past and they do it well.

Miss Gruskiewicz, in particular, brings intensity to her role. She alters her voice when spewing out the words of her torturer; her face turns melancholy as she reflects on her lost innocence, and anguished when she considers that the ghosts of the past may never loosen their grip on her, even if she literally kills her torturer.

Mr. Lescault's performance is understated which is as it should be. His character is the pragmatic, forgiving type, who tells his wife "people can die of an excessive dose of the truth, you know." He doesn't want any trouble. Yet, he's guilt-ridden about his infidelity.

Mr. Hebert convincingly portrays Dr. Miranda, an everyday kind of guy who took up evil habits when presented with the opportunity.

"Death and the Maiden" is not light entertainment. The set is bare, the level of anxiety high and the answers and sense of resolution are zilch.

But both story and acting are strong, encouraging introspection and discussion: Killing an assailant may not undo the ills of the past, but maybe it will quench the ghosts of the future, or "bring closure," as we are prone to say.

Then again, maybe it won't.


***

WHAT: "Death and the Maiden"

WHERE: 1529 16th St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. today, 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. tomorrow, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays through Dec. 1.

TICKETS: $21-$34; senior and 25 and under discounts available

PHONE: 202/777-3229

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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