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Ariel Dorfman's sprawling play about a totalitarian regime gets an unfocused and uneven New York premiere.

Ching Valdes-Aran and Sarah Nina Hayon in Widows
(© Colin D. Young)
In plays like Death and the Maiden and The Other Side, Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman has examined what, for many nations around the globe is commonplace: the aftermath of civil war and the practice of torture by totalitarian regimes. Dorfman revisits these subjects in Widows, a sprawling play from 1998 that's receiving an unfocused and uneven New York premiere at 59E59 Theaters under the direction of Hal Brooks.

Set on the riverbank in a village just emerging from a brutal period of war, Dorfman's play centers on a group of women who are mourning the loss of all of the men from their town, even as they vainly hope that their beloved male relatives will return after mysteriously disappearing during governmental crackdowns. Particularly aggrieved is Sofia (played with fierce dignity by Ching Valdes-Aran) who has lost her father, husband, and two sons and who sits immobile at the edge of the river awaiting the men's return.

Her prayers are seemingly answered when a man's disfigured and mutilated body washes up on the riverbank. Sofia believes it to be that of her father, but before she can bury the corpse, it is taken away and burnt by a Lieutenant (a commanding Giuseppe Jones). He is eager to maintain strict order over Sofia and the other women, and reasons that they cannot question the man's demise without the body.

The Lieutenant's actions, however, are not supported by his superior, a newly-arrived Captain (played with an initially intriguing, but ultimately ineffective lightness by Mark Alhadeff), who hopes to show a modicum of compassion toward those he governs. When a second corpse washes onto the shores, however, the Captain's compassion must give way to political and military expedience. Initially he supports Sofia's claim that the body is that of her husband. Later, in an attempt to stem what he believes might be a rival's attempt to subvert his program of reform, he encourages another woman (Veronica Cruz) to claim the body. His plan backfires, though and after his reversal, all of the women of the town lay claim to the body and rush to observe rites over its grave, turning Widows into a play not unlike Antigone.

Unfortunately, Dorfman burdens what might be a compelling revision to the Greek myth with subplots including a love affair between an orderly (well-played by Joaquin Torres) reporting to the captain and the woman who makes the second claim on the body, and the orderly's mole-like relationship with the wealthy family that holds sway over the arid land (rendered sparely by scenic designer Wilson Chin as a plywood runway cutting through the theater) where the grieving women live. Further, one of Sofia's daughters-in-law (an excellent Sarah Nina Hayon) and this woman's children (played with conviction and warmth by Ana Cruz Kayne and Sean J. Moran) are also drawn into the women's civil disobedience and the captain's retaliatory actions.

Lyrical passages in which the women keen like a Greek chorus and sequences of magic realism only further distract from Dorfman's central story, making it feel aimless. Indeed, Widows meanders as it progresses, sapping the work of its ability to shock, provoke or otherwise emotionally touch theatergoers.


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