To try to imagine a tougher sell than Scena Theatre’s Purge would be to invite nightmares.
The play, which Finnish dramatist Sofi Oksanen subsequently adapted into a novel that has fetched her a bathtub of European literary honors since 2008, depicts the suffering of three generations of women, subjugated by militant Communist thugs at the dawn of the Cold War and sadistic capitalist pimps in its aftermath. In the details of the sexual torture to which they’re subjected—the production’s only mercy is that they’re described and suggested via sound rather than shown—Oksanen fashions a grisly metaphor for the twisting political fortunes of Estonia, where democracy flowered briefly between 1920 and 1940 before being supplanted by Soviet, and then Nazi, and then Soviet totalitarianism. Though it’s become a highly democratic, well-educated nation since the Iron Curtain fell, the Estonia presented here, in scenes hopscotching from roughly 1950 to 1992, is an overgrown forest of horrors where only the narrowest shafts of sunlight peek through. Bring the kids!
Real talk: Do not under any circumstances bring the kids.
The play opens in 1947, with a harrowing scene of a girl with a bag over her head being tormented by two Soviet soldiers. We then skip forward 45 years to meet a bruised-and-confused Zara (Colleen Delany) waking up in a strange woman’s garden. Aliide, the worldly old lady who finds her, knows better than to swallow her story about being a lost waitress from Germany. Still, Aliide (Kerry Waters, sporting an accent that sounds more Irish than Eastern European to my admittedly provincial ear, but who is otherwise entrancing) knows well the face of terror, and she agrees to take Zara in. She turns out to be an old hand at sheltering the hunted, as we learn when we return to mid-century, when she was a pretty young woman (Irina Koval, now) in a loveless marriage to Martin, a rising Communist party member.
Propping up this backstory is even more backstory. While the narrative is complex and occasionally opaque, it’s a credit to director Robert McNamara that we remain as oriented in the parallel 1950s and 1990s plotlines as we do. In the ’50s, the Communists are cleansing the nation of Kulaks—landowning capitalists—casually using rape and torture to create a climate of fear wherein neighbors are reported as “enemies of the people.”
Forty years later, the ideology is different, but the tactics are sadly unchanged. In one early, ’92-set scene, Armand Sindoni asks Stas Wronka, “Which do you want, Estonia or Finland?”—echoing the way Hitler and Stalin carved up Europe in 1939. Sindoni and Wronka play the villains in both eras, and the menace of their performances is palpable. Squat and bald, Sindoni is more imposing physically, but it’s Wronka—playing a middle-aged former KGB man who mourns his wife—who’s the calmer, greater threat, betraying no sense of his reflections until he’s decided your fate.
Strong, committed work from the entire company keeps the audience emotionally on the hook even in moments when the dense plot, and frequent references to two characters we never see, threaten to induce vertigo. The most haunting section of the evening is the fable-like interlude wherein young Aliide hides her dissident brother-in-law in the cellar of her house, a years-long act of love that curdles over time. Aliide’s not-wholly-pure motives are what make her a compelling character, and both Korval and Waters give her many layers their due.
Lee Ordeman, meanwhile, is the man beneath the floorboards, whom Aliide dares allow to emerge only infrequently for meals or a bath. The first time we see him, he strips naked and folds himself into a tiny washtub, then steps out and dresses again. Actors live for these opportunities to prove to us that they’re not vain, and that it’s all about the art. But in a show that confronts the institutional exploitation and abuse of women so unsparingly, it’s admirable that the only nudity on offer is a dude’s.