The play is set in the “present” in a country that is “probably Chile” but could be any nation that has recently transitioned from dictatorship to democracy.
This sets up the play as being both local to Chile and universal, implying that its themes apply to other countries going through similar changes.
Paulina Salas, a woman who is about forty. years old, sits on the terrace of her secluded coastal home, which she shares with her husband, lawyer Gerardo Escobar. On the dining table, dinner is laid out for two and going cold. A strong wind makes the curtains billow and there are sounds of the sea.
There is an eerie disquiet at the start of the play. The sea acts as a symbol of time—or more specifically, the great expanse of time that has witnessed mankind’s entire history and what came before. Paulina was clearly expecting Gerardo to return earlier.
Paulina hears a car approach the house and seems agitated. She takes a gun out of a drawer, hides behind the curtain, and listens, hearing Gerardo expressing thanks to an unknown individual. She hides the gun as he comes in, surprised to find her hidden.
Paulina is clearly worried, perhaps having convinced herself that something bad must have happened to Gerardo to cause his lateness. This emphasizes the fragile calm in a country very new to democracy. The gun, of course, introduces an early threat of violence.
Gerardo explains to Paulina he was talking to the “great guy” who stopped to help him when his car broke down. He shows her the nail which busted one of his tires and complains that Paulina had failed to fix the spare in the trunk of their car. They bicker about the spare and the car jack, which Paulina has loaned to her mother.
The act of kindness shown to Gerardo by a passing stranger suggests that this is a society becoming more civil, its individuals showing empathy to one another. But the nail on the road, in a more subtle way than the gun, also gestures towards potential violence. The nail could also be read as a phallic symbol, violating the tire in a way suggestive of what happened to Paulina.
Gerardo informs Paulina that he has invited “Doctor Miranda”—the good Samaritan who helped him on the road—over for dinner on Sunday. The topic of conversation moves to Gerardo’s news that the president has asked him to head up a commission looking into abuses under the previous dictatorship. He tells Paulina that he wanted to ask her permission before accepting the offer.
Gerardo’s new job would make him a prominent member of the new government and would represent a significant career progression. As the audience soon finds out, his request for Paulina’s permission is perhaps not as sincere as it seems.
Gerardo says he’s worried about what would happen if Paulina were to have a “relapse” while he was running the commission. She seems annoyed, asking if that’s what Gerardo told the president—he says that “nobody knows.”
Paulina asks if the commission will only investigate the “most serious cases”—meaning the ones that ended in death. Gerardo says yes, adding that he doesn’t like to talk about “it.” But, he continues, if he’s heading the commission they’ll have to talk frequently about what happened under the dictatorship. He embraces Paulina, telling her that he loves her and that “it” still hurts him. She passionately gives her “yes” for him to take the job and implores him find out “everything.”
Paulina is understandably frustrated by the idea that the commission will only introduce cases involving dead individuals. This means that atrocities involving rape and torture that did not result in death will be pushed aside. The way they talk around “it”—Paulina’s ordeal—is indicative of Gerardo’s attempts to avoid hearing the details about what happened to her.
Gerardo tries to reassure Paulina about the commission, saying it will do as much as it can to shine a light on the horrors of the previous regime. He says what happens after that depends on the judges. Paulina dismisses the judges’ integrity, seeming increasingly hysterical. Gerado calms her down: “Silly. Silly girl, my baby.”
The audience must here consider whether “shining a light” is a sufficient response to the human rights abuses that the characters refer to throughout the play. Evidently, the idea of justice is important to Paulina and she does not feel that it will be fully realized. Gerardo’s way of calming down Paulina is patronizing.
Paulina asks if Gerardo has already said yes to the president. He says he didn’t want to hurt her, but that yes, he took the job already.
Gerardo’s request for Paulina’s permission was entirely disingenuous. It was, then, a skewed and failed attempt to protect her state of mind by pretending to give her power of the situation.