According to a recent interview in the Chicago Tribune, Sandra Oh left her decade-long, Emmy-winning role on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy to play the emotionally damaged, revenge-seeking Paulina in Death and the Maiden (currently being staged at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theatre through July 20). Many actors might categorize that as a bold (maybe risky) move, but once you witness Oh’s steely determination in a role that’s attracted Glenn Close and Sigourney Weaver, among others, you’ll have to agree that it was a choice well made.
Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden was first produced in 1991 (Roman Polanski’s film adaptation followed only three years later), and immediately opened up a dialogue about retribution and the effects of victimization. Thirty years later, with frequent news reports of the torture and bullying of women, Dorfman’s button-pushing drama seems just as relevant.
Paulina is a supportive spouse to Gerardo (Looking’s Raúl Castillo), a fast-rising investigator in an unnamed Latin American country pursuing the crimes of the preceding political regime. But one night at their beach house, when Gerardo invites in Roberto (John Judd), a doctor who helps Gerardo with a flat tire, Paulina begins to scamper about their home, hiding a pistol and hatching a plan. She believes this seemingly do-gooder doc with a fondness for Schubert is her past tormentor, a brute who repeatedly raped and electrocuted her at the direction of the ousted authorities.
Paulina intends to get a confession out of the underpants-gagged, tied-up Roberto with the help of her nonviolence-leaning husband, who tries to as a lawyerly mediator. But is Roberto actually the perpetrator or have Paulina’s delusional leanings taken over her sense of perception? Maiden is the literal definition of a power play, with none-too-subtle digs at assumed gender roles: Paulina wields her phallic gun throughout, and even furtively suggests that it might be advantageous for Gerardo to rape Roberto.
You can’t ask for a more charged set-up than this. Director Chay Yew maintains the tension and deftly hits the playwright’s black comic undertones without sacrificing credibility. (However, the constantly revolving beachfront set spins so often you half-expect Marius and Enjolras to hop aboard it.) Chicago favorite Judd impressively straddles the audience’s loyalties, while Castillo becomes a fiery, believable ally for Paulina (though he?s quite youthful for this role, a better fit as a conflicted husband than a slick legal counsel). But the production belongs to Sandra Oh, who tracks Paulina’s wounded pride with finesse; a simple declaration early on (”I never complain”), utter with complete resolve, speaks volumes about her state of mind, past and present. The actress keeps her performance surprising throughout, in harmonious tone with Dorfman’s shrewd reveals. With any luck, audiences beyond the Midwest will get a chance to see her. B+