Published in KPBS On Air Magazine May 1993

A man whose car breaks down on the highway is given a lift home by a friendly stranger.   The man’s wife, believing she recognizes in the stranger the voice of the torturer who raped her several years before, draws a gun, holds him hostage and proceeds to put him on trial in her own living room.

The play is “Death and the Maiden”. The time is the present, and the place, according to the stage directions of Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman, is “a country that is Chile but could probably be any country that has given itself a democratic government just after a long period of dictatorship.”

In the post-Pinochet period, after seventeen years of exile, Dorfman returned to his homeland. He felt compelled to confront the trauma that was gnawing at the soul of his countrymen.   It is not a small, personal piece about the aftermath of one dictator’s regime. It is, in the words of the London “Financial Times”, “magnificent… one of those rare plays which, with the limpid simplicity of a classical myth, seem to grasp the pulse of the century.”

To San Diego Repertory Theatre artistic director Doug Jacobs, who directs the San Diego premiere (opening May 19), it is “probably the most important drama in the world right now.”   International demand for the play is fierce.   There are forty productions in Germany alone. The Broadway production (which ran last spring) boasted a high-octane cast: Glenn Close, Richard Dreyfuss, Gene Hackman.   The film version is being directed by Roman Polanski.  

The play is part of the Rep’s Teatro sin Fronteras program, developed in 1988 to showcase the work of Latino writers. Jacobs met Dorfman that year, when he came to see the Rep’s production of “Burning Patience”, a taut drama written by Dorfman’s school chum, Antonio Scarmata. Dorfman’s plays have begun where Scarmata’s left off.

But the themes of this play, says Jacobs, are universal. “It’s very classic, almost Greek, while at the same time functioning as a modern political thriller. It’s about the way power works within a couple.   Trust and mistrust between a husband and wife. Violence between men and women. And how difficult it is to determine the truth — in individuals, families and also in a country as a whole.   It’s very personal, very passionate.   And very relevant to issues of violence in America .   But it’s less about trauma than about a woman coming back to life.”

Ironically, this production is strategically placed in the middle of a campaign to bring a theater back to life. At the end of last June, the Rep’s accumulated deficit was in excess of $400,000.    In the past five years, the theater has struggled to stay alive, mounting a massive (though not wholly successful) “Keep the Lights On” campaign, scaling down the production schedule from seven to six annual presentations, releasing controversial managing director Adrian Stewart, almost halving the rest of the administrative and production staff (now down to 25), and skirting interminable rumors of mismanagement and impending closure. (Some said “Death and the Maiden” would be the Rep’s swan song).

But producing director Sam Woodhouse remains optimistic. He’s spearheading “a very dramatic and aggressive financial stabilization campaign intended to break the cycle of deficit spending and crisis fundraising.” The specific goals of the campaign are to reduce expenses by $100,000 and raise $200,000 by July. According to Woodhouse, “The success of this campaign is critical to the survival of this theater, and its future. At this point, the campaign is firmly on track.”

In the decreased expenditure department, the large-cast musical, “Sweeney Todd”, scheduled for April, was replaced by a small-cast, out-of-town musical production “Always Patsy Kline”. In terms of fundraising, the Rep is receiving some power-packed assistance.   Members of the L.A. cast of “Phantom of the Opera” donated their time for a March benefit.   Whoopi Goldberg presents a benefit on May 8.   Requests for over $300,000 are in process to foundations, corporations and individuals.   And the City’s two-theater, Horton Plaza lease to the Rep has just been extended another seven years.

One of the strongest playing cards in the Rep’s hand is its firm commitment to culturally diverse programming.   In the 1992-93 seasons, 70% of the people onstage were actors of color (the national average is about 15%). The company fiercely supports writers of color. Next season will highlight the world premiere of “The Dream Project”, a bilingual jazz opera inspired by Calderón de la Barca’s “Life’s a Dream,” produced with major funding from the Meet the Composer foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.    And this year, on the heels of a broad range of multicultural offerings:   Latins Anonymous, “Spunk”, a gospel “Christmas Carol”, two by Brenda Wong Aoki and “The Dybbuk”, there is the searing and powerful “Death and the Maiden”. All fingers are crossed.

“The challenges are extreme,” Woodhouse says soberly.   “I will not use the word desperate.   I don’t feel desperate.   It’s not possible to create, and to solve challenges, by being desperate.” Chin up, chest out, curtain up. The indomitable Rep forges on……

©1993 Patté Productions Inc.