Victoria Diaz wields a handgun, brandishing it at other characters during a dress rehearsal Sunday on the Albert L. Jeffers Theatre stage in Edinburg.
Diaz, a student at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, plays Paulina Salas in the UTRGV Theatre Department’s production of “Death and the Maiden,” a work set in a post-dictatorship Latin American country.
Paulina imprisons a man she accused of torturing and raping her years ago during her time as a captive political prisoner.
Her husband, Gerardo Escobar, played by Jonathan Dimas, is a lawyer recently tasked to investigate the human rights abuses of the previous regime, but without the power of prosecution.
If the plot sounds familiar, it’s because Ariel Dorfman’s script is inspired by former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s rule.
“Everywhere I turned, I saw victims and tormentors living side by side, drinking at the same bars, eating at the same restaurants, jostling each other on buses and streets — never acknowledging the pain and the guilt — not to themselves; not to anybody,” said playwright Ariel Dorfman when returning to his native Chile after his exile. “I couldn’t stand that silence, and the result was my play, ‘Death and the Maiden.’”
Brian Warren, an assistant professor of theater at UTRGV, said Paulina turns her home into a courtroom seeking justice for herself.
Because of the proximity to the South American story, Warren said, it made sense for the department to perform the production, considering its relevance.
“We want to try to do plays that are pushing the envelope thematically,” he said. “I think it’s important in this time when people are bringing injustices to light — like (Harvey) Weinstein and Bill Cosby, where (victims) have been kept silent for all these years.
“It is important to send that message — that justice has to happen quickly, in this country especially. It’s the rule of law.”
Victims’ rights became a crucial topic in preparation, Warren said, and called the play timely with the #MeToo movement.
“It’s a hard balance to strike — very difficult,” Warren said of protecting actors working in such heavy content and encouraging them to draw inspiration.
With Diaz, Warren recalled encouraging the theater student — whose character experiences PTSD from her abuse — to “tap into this feeling of people not believing,” including her character’s husband, and “getting justice in a world that doesn’t often give it, especially to women.”
Warren said one way they ready the team is with guests who give them first-hand experience.
“I was in tears after that,” Diaz said.
Her theater experience was “light plays and musicals,” Diaz said, and described “Death” as “the polar opposite of what’s she done.”
It’s a challenge to portray the depth and pain of Paulina, she said.
Gus Kennedy, who was in Chile and spoke to the crew, told them about a woman who didn’t say anything after being tortured, Diaz said.
“This play actually portrays the ability to use your voice and say what you’ve been thinking and not feel ashamed of the thoughts you have,” she said.
Warren said the cast also talked about inherent evil within humans, and how “the governments we choose can bring that out in people.” This work serves as a cautionary tale.
Warren spoke of a scene “where she basically interrogates her own husband, channeling the same techniques, and you see how easily you can fall into mistreating another person,” he said. “Even this person, who is a victim … falls into it, too.”
The production runs from Wednesday to Sunday. Tickets are $15, and $5 for students, faculty and staff with ID. A panel discussion will be held after the Sunday matinee.
“Death and the Maiden”
UTRGV Albert L. Jeffers Theatre, 1201 W. University Drive, Edinburg
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 3
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 4
7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 5
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 6
2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 7