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The most horrifying thing about Death and the Maiden isn’t the torture it describes. It’s how fresh the story always seems to feel: A decade after Glenn Close revenged herself on Gene Hackman in the Broadway premiere, eight years after Sigourney Weaver tied Ben Kingsley to a chair in the Roman Polanski film, Ariel Dorfman’s play—a deeply felt, deeply conflicted drama about the opposing imperatives of justice and reconciliation in an emerging democracy—still seems as raw and immediate as the reports of institutionalized torture that emerge daily from places like Bangladesh and Lebanon, Zimbabwe and Ukraine. If the world only spins forward, as another of our most impassioned dramatists argues, Maiden’s endless relevance—even in a production as ultimately unsatisfying as the one at Theater J—suggests dispiritingly that we don’t learn much from the constant revolutions.

Dorfman’s story unfolds in South America, of course, in an unnamed country much like the author’s native Chile, where state-sponsored torture and “disappearances” were only the most popular tools favored by Augusto Pinochet’s military junta. The names are parochially Spanish: Paulina Escobar, a woman shadowed by memories of her time in the torture cells; Gerardo, her lawyer husband and newly appointed truth-commission member; Roberto Miranda, the doctor whose chance appearance offers Paulina the opportunity for justice. (Or is it simply revenge?)

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But the uneasy politics of truth and reconciliation—the pressures to move on, to put pasts behind, to rebuild and stabilize, to forget and forgive and forbear—are those that have played out in any number of places: in Argentina, in Bolivia, yes, but also in South Africa and indeed in the United States, where we generally prefer to pretend that it’s more important to move forward and make money than to acknowledge and apologize for the institutionalized wrongs in our own past.

It’s partly her rage at such politics that drives Paulina (Paula Gruskiewicz) to take matters into her own hands when the doctor turns up unknowingly on her doorstep, having rescued her husband from a highway breakdown. What justice is likely when the truth commission has no judicial authority? When the judges who must weigh its findings are the ones who looked blindly on at the old regime’s atrocities? When only the deaths will be investigated, and the living dead, like herself, will have to reconcile their pasts as best they can? Paulina knows what chasm there is between her husband’s ideals of justice and what his system will deliver. So she’s driven to seek it out for herself, even if she has only her own vivid memories—of smells, of skin, of the sounds of Schubert and a single unforgettable voice—to prove the doctor’s guilt.

In the play’s opening moments, before that crucial meeting, Gruskiewicz does marvelously subtle work with her body language, overlaying a halting style on her strong features and sturdy frame, eloquently suggesting the twinned physical and psychological damage that makes torture such an effective instrument. Later, to be sure, she lets Paulina’s first forays into hysteria play a little too broadly; she returns to more nuanced form, though, in time for a scene that requires the character to name the nature of the indignities she suffered in those dark, pain-filled rooms, and the anguish of the moment finds eloquent expression in the way her body almost seems to be twisting away from itself in revulsion.

John Lescault, by contrast, has always seemed ill at ease with his own physicality; when he’s not gesticulating overvigorously, he slumps uncomfortably, hands dangling, a marionette stuck lifeless on its rack. His pinched, perpetually worried visage is somehow right for Gerardo, though; this is a man who once may have acted but now merely frets, a watchdog neutered by his ascension into government. For such a man, Lescault’s mannered speech—the mildly stuffy cadences, the ever-so-slightly pretentious tone—are repulsively perfect. He, too, overplays many of his character’s outbursts (director John Vreeke might have kept a tighter rein on both of his Escobars), but he does manage a moment or two of grace in quieter, tenderer passages.

Mitchell Hebert is able enough as Miranda, perhaps more than able toward the play’s end, when the character finally crumbles and the crumbling turns unexpectedly into a kind of perverse resolve. But at no point does he seem other than guilty—which robs the play of significant tension. Dorfman is interested not just in the integrity of the process but in the sanctity of the truth as well, and we need to fear the possibility of an innocent man’s punishment as much as we fear the seductive allure of vigilantism.

If the characterizations are occasionally less complex than Dorfman’s script, the production design does justice to the material. James Kronzer’s set echoes the argument’s multiplicity of levels and layers, using just a few steps and platforms; a couple of crumbling arches, as in a catacomb, suggest both labyrinthine politics and the brutal emotional excavations that are the evening’s concern. Dan Conway and Mark Anduss punctuate scene changes and speeches with lights and sound cues that eschew subtlety for punch; the washes of warm gold and watery green, the sea-murmur and mournful strings manage to be dramatic without being intrusive.

And yet Vreeke’s production lingers not in the heart, but in the head; it captures all the play’s intellectual complexity and not enough of its humanity, and you find yourself thinking the next day of its arguments rather than of its characters. Though that’s enough to count as a fine excursion into politics, it’s not quite what we mean by theater. Certainly it’s less than Death and the Maiden deserves. CP