There are plenty of movies and plays that you forget almost as soon as you leave the theater. “Death and the Maiden” is not one of those. As directed by Gary Hopper for the merged Henley Street and Richmond Shakespeare companies, this sharply focused journey into the darker recesses of human behavior practically vibrates with tension and crackles with violence, both physical and emotional. It’s a play that leaves you with feelings and thoughts that will rattle around your psyche for days, repaying your patronage with a rich intellectual feast you can return to again and again.
The center of the drama is Katrinah Carol Lewis, playing a young woman named Paulina who was brutally tortured more than a decade before the action of the play. With her recovery from that experience still fragile, a stranger enters her home after helping her husband, Gerardo (David Clark), deal with a flat tire. To her horror, the stranger, Dr. Miranda (Christopher Dunn), uses specific turns of phrase that one of her unseen torturers also used so, when her husband leaves the room, she subdues him and ties him to a chair. From that moment on, the play mixes mystery, psychology and brutality into a nail-biting battle between the three participants.
The play’s history involves years of political unrest and terrorism in an unnamed country, a past that is brought viscerally into the present thanks to a stark backdrop made up of battered clothing, much of it blood-stained. The clever set design by Tennessee Dixon also frames Paulina behind a slatted door during one key scene, putting her physically behind bars as she relives her worst memories. The shadowy lighting design by BJ Wilkinson also adds a moody, almost ominous air to the proceedings.
These technical elements elevate the already stellar work by the show’s cast. Lewis has proved herself a powerful actress in a number of previous productions, but nothing compares to the bracing work she does here. Most impressive is how, even in the midst of near-hysterical reactions, Lewis never lets you forget Paulina’s native intelligence. And it is the character’s cleverness that ultimately provides clarity in an often-ambiguous narrative.
Clark makes the most out of a very difficult character who is caught between the love for his wife, his sense of decency, and his personal political aspirations. The knife-edge he walks becomes increasing perilous as the play progresses. Though he has the fewest lines, Dunn has a particularly harrowing acting challenge here, receiving the brunt of the violence meted out during the play. And Hopper’s brilliant decision to leave the actor onstage, bound and hooded, during intermission makes the audience uncomfortably complicit in the abuse.
If you want a night of escapism or light entertainment, “Death and the Maiden” is not for you. But if you want your intellect challenged, your perspective altered and your soul enriched, this play delivers the goods.
“Death and the Maiden” plays at the Gottwald Playhouse at Richmond Centerstage through March 1st. Go to henleystreettheatre.org or call 804-340-0115 for tickets and information.