Charlayne Woodard and Dan Snook in Purgatorio
(Photo © Chris Bennion)
Charlayne Woodard and Dan Snook in Purgatorio
(Photo © Chris Bennion)
"Hell is other people," goes the famous line by Jean-Paul Sartre. In the case of Ariel Dorfman's Purgatorio, now playing at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, the same can be said for purgatory. Dorfman, author of Death and the Maiden and The Other Side, imagines the afterlife as an antiseptic white room in which a man and woman are compelled to account for their lives. Figuratively shackling its two actors together in a lunging knife fight, this show is not what you'd call first-date material; it's a charged, poetic inquiry into human relationships that dangles the possibility of redemption just out of reach.

In writing the play, Dorfman asked himself, "What is the worst thing a woman can do to a man, and a man to a woman?" He found his answer in the story of Jason and Medea, history's proto-dysfunctional couple -- and you'd do well to brush up on your Greek mythology before entering the theater. In just three scenes, Dorfman delivers a ferocious battle of wills that careens from the personal to the political landscape but names no clear victor. Are some crimes too horrific to be forgiven? And what if the person you've damaged most on this earth is the only one who can save you?

In the ultimate time-out, Dorfman sends these two damaged people -- identified simply as "Woman" and "Man" -- into a stark, white room and sics them upon each other. But there's no god on duty in purgatory to referee the battle, just a couple of surveillance cameras that may or may not be working. It's up to the Woman and the Man to find redemption in each other, and their success is anything but guaranteed. In an interesting twist, the two take turns as the interrogator (outfitted in white labcoat and glasses) and the interrogated. We're not always certain exactly who we're dealing with, and neither are they.

Director David Esbjornson sends the actors tearing into the script's meaty questions with bold, muscular performances. As the Woman, Charlayne Woodard paces the austere set like a caged tigress, all lean lines and raw emotion. With her braids flying and her long, dark limbs gleaming, she alternates seamlessly between defiant hostility and heartbreaking sorrow. Dumped by her husband for a younger woman, the Woman has wreaked vengeance with a series of horrifically violent murders. As she recalls her youngest victim's pleas in the final moments before his death, Woodard is absolutely chilling; hers is a first wives' club that no woman in her right mind would want to join, yet we can't dismiss the Woman as a monster because Woodard's nuanced performance won't let us off that easily.

As the Man, Dan Snook is equally supple. He nimbly transforms himself from a detached, asexual clinician to a swaggering man of action in a matter of moments. Beneath that arrogant veneer is a little boy eager to earn top marks from teacher. Snook reveals the vulnerability beneath the bravado and earns our sympathy -- to a degree. It's satisfying to see the Man taken down a few pegs by the Woman, in whom he's clearly met his match. Charged with a mission to heal her, he little suspects that he himself is in need of redemption.

By the time the final scene is played, Purgatorio is no longer simply the case of a jilted wife's outrage at being traded in for a newer model by her callous husband. Dorfman widens his lens to take in the trampled political landscape left behind by a long line of conquerors; the white hero's quest has been glorified through the ages, while the native woman who helped him is used up, then vilified as a witch or a traitor. An impassioned monologue in which Woodard's Woman spells this out for Snook's Man left the opening night audience gasping for breath.

The actors throw themselves around Nick Schwartz-Hall's spartan set. With just two flimsy, semi-transparent walls framing the space, they have no solid surface to pound or kick, other than the door to the room. As in No Exit, the door is unlocked, so the Man and/or Woman could leave at any time they choose -- but they never do. They realize that the forgiveness they need can only be found in each other.