WELLESLEY — A barefoot woman named Paulina Salas sits, listening intently, as her husband talks to a jovial visitor in a nearby room. She is unseen by the two men.
As the moments pass, Paulina’s expression of fixed concentration is transformed into a grim picture of resolve. She has clearly made up her mind about something.
Paulina’s subsequent action in Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s visceral and gripping production of “Death and the Maiden’’ will throw her own harrowing past and that of her nation into sharp relief.
The work of Argentine-Chilean-American writer Ariel Dorfman, “Death and the Maiden’’ is talky and reliant on far-fetched coincidence but pretty compelling nonetheless. Director Steven Maler makes astute use of a small black-box space at Babson College to generate an air of claustrophobic tension while demonstrating a firm grasp of the multiple dimensions of Dorfman’s play.
First produced in the early 1990s, “Death and the Maiden’’ is part psychological thriller; part political allegory, weighing the competing demands of vengeance, reconciliation, and justice; and part courtroom drama, albeit one that unfolds in a home rather than a court of law.
For it is indeed a trial that Paulina (Flora Diaz) has in mind for the visitor, a physician named Roberto Miranda (Mark Torres). Fifteen years earlier, when her unnamed nation was under the sway of a brutal dictatorship, Paulina, a dissident, had been imprisoned, interrogated, tortured, and raped by secret police. (Dorfman has said that “Death and the Maiden’’ was inspired by the restoration of democracy in Chile after the blood-soaked dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.)
Though Paulina was blindfolded during her ordeal, she often heard the voice of the doctor who oversaw the interrogation. (He liked to play a recording of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.’’) Now she is certain she is hearing that voice again. Before long, she has Roberto bound and gagged on the floor. Her goal: to force him to confess while giving him a taste of the terror and helplessness she felt.
Facing Paulina’s calmly delivered accusation, Roberto adamantly insists she has the wrong guy. Can he convince Paulina’s husband, Gerardo Escobar (Mickey Solis), of his innocence, or will Gerardo — who has previously been worried about his wife’s state of mind — remain loyal to her?
Two complicating factors are in the mix. First, when Paulina was imprisoned 15 years earlier, she protected Gerardo, then her lover and a fellow dissident, refusing to give up his name to the secret police despite her suffering, as she reminds him. Second, in another of the play’s too-tidy coincidences, Gerardo, a human rights lawyer, has just been appointed to a presidential commission to examine the abuses of the previous regime, making the husband’s dilemma official as well as personal.
Unfortunately, Solis still seemed to be working out his portrayal of Gerardo on opening night, dissipating the impact of some of the friction-filled exchanges between husband and wife.
Torres fares better as Roberto, delivering a performance that is impressive on a physical level — the actor has to absorb considerable punishment — and as a matter of an artfully sustained balance: He succeeds for much of the play in creating a small sliver of doubt about Roberto’s guilt.
But it is Diaz’s nuanced portrayal of Paulina that occupies the center of “Death and the Maiden.’’ She endows Paulina with a kind of reverberating stillness that demands your attention. The actress skillfully conveys the sense that Paulina has been emotionally immobilized for 15 years but is now finding a kind of power in action, a stand-in for a traumatized nation that is finally confronting its past.
Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, long known for its annual free summer productions of Shakespeare plays on Boston Common, has expanded its partnership with Babson College over the past year. Last spring CSC presented the world premiere at Babson of Jake Broder’s “Our American Hamlet,’’ a muddled play inspired by Edwin Booth, the actor-brother of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth. But the company rebounded nicely with “Beckett in Brief,’’ an evening of short dramas by Samuel Beckett, starring Will Lyman. “Death and the Maiden’’ is another solid step toward broadening CSC’s identity and proving the troupe can thrive beyond the Common.
DEATH AND THE MAIDEN
Play by Ariel Dorfman. Directed by Steven Maler. Production by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. Presented by Babson Arts. At Sandra L. Sorenson Black Box, Sorenson Center for the Arts, Babson College, Wellesley, through Feb. 11. Tickets $40, 781-239-5880, www.commshakes.org