‘Maiden’ Voyage — Sandra Oh embarks on an emotionally charged journey at Victory Gardens
Hedy Weiss Sun-times THEATER critic June 11, 2014 7:04PM
Sandra Oh is photographed outside the Victory Gardens Theater where she is starring in “Death and the Maiden.” | Al Podgorski / Sun-Times Media
‘Death and the Maiden,’ Previews June 13-19; opens June 20 and runs through July 13. Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln. $45-$65. (773) 871-3000; victorygardens.org
Updated: June 13, 2014 2:41PM
Actress Sandra Oh hardly needs an introduction. During 10 seasons as a leading player on the hit ABC series, “Grey’s Anatomy,” she put a lasting imprint on her character, Dr. Christina Yang — the strong-willed, work-obsessed physician who advanced from surgical intern to “cardiothoracic surgical fellow,” engaged in a number of intense romantic relationships, and most recently headed off (for good) to run the research hospital in Switzerland previously led by Dr. Preston Burke, her one-time fiance and mentor.
Like Yang, Oh also is something of a workaholic. Even before she filmed her final “Grey’s Anatomy” episode in late April, she had signed on to star in the Victory Gardens Theater revival of “Death and the Maiden,” the dark and disturbing 1992 drama by Ariel Dorfman that begins previews June 13.
In this three-character work, Oh plays Paulina Salas, who was a student activist years earlier when a military coup ousted an elected government, and she was arrested, tortured and raped for weeks. (Dorfman based the play on the 1973 coup that ousted Salvador Allende, Chile’s popularly elected socialist president, and replaced him with Gen. Augusto Pinochet, whose regime killed, tortured, and exiled tens of thousands of Chileans.)
During a rehearsal break recently, Oh juggled a mug of tea and a snack of apple slices and peanut butter as she recalled how she was enticed into her post-TV assignment.
“My old friend Chay Yew [artistic director of Victory Gardens], first approached me about doing a play a couple of years ago. The he got hold of me again right at the moment when I knew I would be leaving ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’ Doing the play — my first stage work since 2006 — actually helped me leave the show. It was time to make the break. And I could never have used my hiatus for something like this after filming a season of 24 episodes.”
Oh met Yew almost 20 years ago when she first landed in Los Angeles, hooked up with the Mark Taper Forum, and reveled in what she now nostalgically describes as “a great moment for playwright development,” with the blossoming of such Asian-American writers as her good friend, Diana Son [“Stop Kiss”], and Chay [whose adaptation of “The House of Bernarda Alba” she appeared in], as well as people like Kia Corthron and Luis Alfaro.
“Chay is such a taskmaster,” said Oh, laughing. “And I trust him. He has such an expansiveness and purposefulness, such a deeply moving heartbeat — all of which are crucial for this show.”
Yet Oh admits the stage — which she is sharing with Raul Castillo (as her husband, Gerado, a human rights lawyer), and John Judd (as the enigmatic Dr. Miranda, who may have been Paulina’s torturer, who played Schubert’s quartet, “Death and the Maiden,” while raping her) — uses different muscles than those required for television.
“It requires another kind of stretch and stamina, a different way of thinking about space,” said the Canadian-born actress, 42, who is the daughter of Korean immigrants. “I’m in the third week of rehearsals now, and I want to get it right quickly, as I’d do on a television set. But that’s just not how theater works. I’m SUPPOSED to feel awful now — in a deep, dark pit of hell.”
In preparation for her role as Paulina, Oh has done a great deal of reading and research.
“Chicago is a major landing center for many people, and it has an important treatment center for torture victims, one of whom I’ve met,” said the actress. “I’ve also watched several documentaries: ‘The Square’ [about the Egyptian revolution of 2011, and its roots in Tahrir Square]; ‘The Act of Killing’ [about the 1965-66 anti-communist purge in Indonesia that left 500,000 people dead]; ‘Beneath the Blindfold’ [about four different torture survivors], and ‘S21’ [about the Khmer Rouge killing machine in Cambodia].”
“Ariel Dorfman is Chilean, but this play could be set ‘anywhere’,” said Oh. “Since starting to work on it, I wake up every morning, turn on the news, and hear things in a totally different way. And that’s the purpose of doing the play — to bring some sort of consciousness to the surface, without saying what is right or what is wrong.
“But I can tell you, for relaxation I am really looking forward to checking out the Korean spa I discovered here,. Those ladies can really scrub you and work those pressure points.”