Before Paulina Escobar leaves her tied-up captive alone in the room, she slowly turns, remembering to violently cram her underwear into his mouth as a final, demeaning touch of bitter vengeance.

In “Death and the Maiden,” a play rife with pain and calculated violence, director Peter Cook ’05 creates a psychological test of endurance, both for the actors and the audience. The play, written by Ariel Dorfman, centers on the intricate relationships among three despairing characters.

After helping Gerardo Escobar (Ian Lowe ’04) with a flat tire, Dr. Roberto Miranda (David Laufgraben ’03) finds himself knocked out, tied to a chair, with a gun to his head — the night-time maneuver of Gerardo’s tormented wife Paulina (a powerful Ren Johns ’04).

Based on the Chilean military coup staged in the 1970s, the play opens at the beginning of the new democracy. Gerardo is appointed to a presidential commission that aims to reconcile the grievances of victims of the old regime with the new government.

Miranda casually drops in to the Escobar home. Upon hearing his voice from her bedroom, Paulina is convinced that he is the same doctor who, while working for the old regime, repeatedly raped and tortured her. Now an embittered victim, Paulina finally gets her hands on a gun. It is here that the tension begins to mount.

The play is deceptively simple, using few props and limited space. The sparse stage enhances the claustrophobic feel of the show. Lowe, Johns, and Laufgraben create a sense of uneasiness more volatile than any murder mystery — and without the gore, too. The actors highlight the complexity that emerges when justice and a personal desire for vengeance clash. “Real, real truth” is all any of the characters want, but the objective truth is the last thing to be found in this play.

Fueled by this search for truth, the plot never slows or stagnates. The various dilemmas range from justice versus revenge to man versus woman, creating new knots for the characters to untangle. Transitions between scenes are smooth, always leaving a question lingering in the air. The switch from Paulina’s account of her past to Miranda’s faked testimony is exceptionally well-executed, and Paulina’s obsession with Miranda’s repentance invokes a feeling of pity that adds to the desperation of the play.

One of the other significant questions in “Death and the Maiden” does not concern Paulina’s wrath but instead her need for resolution. The truth obviously will not be revealed, but Paulina refuses to back down from her demand for it, from the facts of her past to Gerardo’s alleged affair.

While perhaps slow to begin, “Death and the Maiden” does not fail to draw the audience into its many layers of emotional uncertainty. Under Cook’s direction, the play has plenty to boast about. A stark setting and thoughtful acting lend the performance a gravity essential to the success of Dorfman’s play.