People’s Branch Theatre amps things up

This white-knuckle political thriller is a riveting intellectual and emotional tug-of-war. Set in an unnamed country emerging from a totalitarian dictatorship, the play explores the aftereffects of repression on hearts and souls. 

Believing the good Samaritan who has just given her husband a ride home is the same man who tortured her, a woman ties the suspect to a chair and conducts her own interrogation, gun in hand. Her husband doesn’t know whether to believe his distraught wife or his persuasive new friend. This powerful play examines the need for justice as well as the cost of the relentless pursuit of vengeance, showing that some wounds may never heal. (NOTE: Adult situations and language.)

The ensemble cast features Erin Whited as the embattled Paulina Escobar, Chip Arnold as her political husband Gerardo, and Buddy Raper as the enigmatic Dr. Roberto Miranda. Each of these actors has a career of distinction in Nashville, performing variously with every professional company in the city.

The production has received an overwhelming outpouring of support from the academic community of Vanderbilt University and is sponsored in part by the Center for Latin American and Iberian Studies, The Vanderbilt Law School International Legal Studies Program, the Program in Jewish Studies and the Center for the Americas. In addition, the International Legal Studies Program will also host a special lunchtime panel discussion in conjunction with the show to discuss the political, legal and social aspects of the play.

Death and the Maiden is a powerful play that deals with the lingering trauma of rape and torture,” says Ted Fischer, director of the Center for Latin American and Iberian Studies at Vanderbilt, “as well as the complicated moralities that emerge in the search for justice and retribution. Avoiding easy moralizations, the play forces the audience to reach its own conclusions. While dealing with the dark history of Chile, it also speaks forcefully to the sorts of moral dilemmas we face in the world today. More relevant than ever, Death and the Maiden should be required viewing for all who are concerned with terror and the human condition.”

"At the Center for the Americas, we believe that it is essential to for people in the U.S. to get a better understanding of both current and historical issues in the countries to the south of our borders," says Vera Kutzinski, the Martha Rivers Ingram Professor of English and director of the Center for the Americas. "Literature always plays an important role in helping us grasp how people in other countries live under circumstances we imagine impossible for ourselves. Dorfman's Death and the Maiden shows how lives are deformed and distorted under political dictatorships, and what freedom might mean in such a context. These are issues that concern all of us in the Americas and in the world today. The CFA applauds the People's Branch Theater for bringing this play to Nashville."

"In the classroom, law students learn about the legal and political aspects of international human rights violations,” says Larry Helfer, director of the International Legal Studies Program in Vanderbilt Law School, “but they don't always appreciate the psychological and emotional consequences of those violations for the individuals and families involved. Death and the Maiden exposes students to those consequences and provides a crucially important illustration of why many government officials and private actors have worked so hard to develop an international legal system to protect human rights."

Recently, Ross Brooks, executive director for People’s Branch Theatre, talked with O&AN at Café OutLoud! on Church Street about the upcoming production and future PBR projects.

O&AN: What do you think is the most important theme of this production?

Ross Brooks: I am incredibly drawn to the aspect of this show that talks about putting a human face on faceless violence. When you hear about thousands and thousands of people who are tortured and killed or simply just disappear, it may be difficult to process that. But when the violence comes down to a one-on-one experience, it makes it much more personal and hard to ignore. That goes for both sides of the equation.

O&AN: The play is set in another country over thirty years in the past. What do you see as the relevance of this production to modern day Americans?

RB: There is a direct correlation between the events dictated by this play and the current situation with the war in Iraq. The way civil liberties have eroded and restricted since Sept. 11, 2001 is only the beginning. The Patriot Act as well as the Abu Ghraib prison incident as well as Guantanamo Bay and CIA water torture are also reflected in Death and the Maiden. The political situation is obviously not as extreme in this instance but the similarities are still shocking on analysis. Many of the atrocities that were committed during the time period it depicts were done in the interest of national security. We take it on faith a lot of times that the government is doing things in our best interest but where do you draw the line between a necessary activity and what amounts to sadism?

O&AN: Death & the Maiden is an almost 360 degree turn around from PBT’s last couple of productions. While Hedwig and Irma Vep certainly weren’t devoid of intensity, there is a decidedly more lighthearted feel to those productions contrasted against the mind blowing intensity of Death and the Maiden. Why the shift in direction this time out?

RB: The idea of Progressive Theatre covers a wide range of topics. I wanted to produce a very diverse season that runs the gamut and strive to do something interesting and unique for every show. Hedwig is in a class by itself without a doubt and Irma Vep was a challenge in a lot of ways to myself and the actors. This piece is an amazing piece of theatre that is definitely not for the faint of heart. It will be a challenge not only for me and the actors but also for the audience who invests their time in the show. It’s an emotional roller coaster ride but the payoff is totally worth it.

O&AN: If the subject matter of the piece is any indication, in order to convincingly deliver their parts they will have to draw from some pretty deep wells of inspiration. How do you as the director aim to reach within your players in order to draw out that sort of power in their performance?

RB: In acting we talk a lot about dedication to your role and doing things as actors that deepens your relationship with your role therefore growing yourself as an actor. I needed actors for the roles who were emotionally resilient because I cast the roles with actors who I wanted to challenge to go with me to a very dark place filled with pain in order to call these things out into the open. One of the great themes of this piece is how to confront those things that happen to you. How do you deal with the darkness that happens to you? How do you live again when your life has been turned upside down? I am a fan of looking at the shadows because if you don’t look at the dark things and confront them for what they are then how can you properly appreciate the light things that make life worth living? I want to cultivate an audience that is willing to go there in order if only to recognize and appreciate what is beautiful and sublime even among the darkness of a situation like that.

O&AN: How does putting on a production of this intensity most challenge you as director?

RB: The main thing that stands out to me is the fact that it is very real. In the past I have moved in a more fantastical route with my direction and writing. When I happened upon this script it appealed to me mainly because it didn't shy away from the harsh reality of the world, but rather embraced it in all it's ugliness.
Death and the Maiden runs Feb. 7 - 16 at the Belcourt Theatre in Hillsboro Village. Tickets are $18 for general admission and $12 for seniors or students with ID and can be purchased through the Belcourt box office by calling 615-846-3150 or online at For more information about Death and the Maiden or about People’s Branch, check out or

This show is rated "R" for content and is not intended for children under the age of 17;  it contains adult situations and language. There will also be gunshots.

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