The play takes place in the living/dining room and terrace of the Escobars' beach house. It is after midnight; Paulina Salas, home alone, sits in the moonlight. At the sound of a car, she hurriedly gets up and, spotting an unfamiliar vehicle, grabs a gun from the sidebar. When she hears her husband's voice outside, however, she hides the gun away.
Gerardo Escobar, her husband, enters alone, surprised to find Paulina standing in the darkness waiting for him. He explains that he got a flat tire on his way home from an important meeting and he couldn't fix it himself because the car's spare hadn't been repaired, nor was the jack in the car. He and Paulina argue over whose responsibility it was to fix the spare; Gerardo blames his wife for leaving a flat spare tire in the trunk and accuses her of removing the car jack. Paulina admits that she gave the jack to her mother, who has taken a drive south and, according to Paulina, needs the jack more than Gerardo does.
Annoyed, Gerardo complains that he waited 45 minutes before anyone would stop to help him. Finally, a doctor - Roberto Miranda - picked him up and brought him home. To say thank you, Gerardo has invited Miranda to the Escobar home for a drink that coming Sunday.
In the meantime, it becomes clear that Gerardo's meeting - with the President - was a success. He has been asked to serve on an important Commission that the President has established to investigate the human rights violations of the previous administration. This assignment is a prestigious honor for Gerardo, who is the youngest person to be appointed. Gerardo asks for Paulina's approval to accept the President's invitation. He explains that he told the President he needed a day to think it over and implies that he will only accept the offer if Paulina agrees to it. Although she gives him the "yes" he asks for, he is unsatisfied with her simple response and presses her to understand that, should he accept the appointment, he will need her full support. He tells her that if she were to have a "relapse" it might threaten his new position; the discussion continues and it becomes clear that Paulina has some psychological struggles that they both keep hidden from the outside world.
Gerardo describes his new position with excitement, speaking optimistically about the Commission's important task - publishing an official history of the previous administration's human rights violations. When Paulina asks exactly what authority the Commission will have to punish those who are found guilty of these crimes, Gerardo implies that it will then be up to the country's judges to determine any punishment, which infuriates Paulina. Irate, she insists that the same judges who refused to intervene when the violations were taking place will be unlikely to retroactively issue retributions for those violations now.
Gerardo calms his wife down, and the scene ends with Paulina demanding that Gerardo admit that he has already accepted the President's invitation. She knows that his claim that he needed to get her approval is false. Pushed, Gerardo admits that he didn't want to hurt Paulina, but she is right: he has officially accepted the position.
The play's first scene foreshadows much of the drama to follow. The first image is of Paulina, alone in the darkness: a visual representation of the isolation she's experienced since her trauma so many years before. She feels alienated from her country, her society, and her husband. Her instant reaction to seeing an unfamiliar car is to grab a gun, which shows how quickly she angers and responds with violence to anything that scares or threatens her. Her aggressiveness will only increase throughout the play.
The darkness and confusion that marks the opening scene of Death and the Maiden also serves as a visual metaphor for the uncertain position and future of the country. The play is set in a nation that has very recently established a democracy after years of dictatorship, which is similar to Dorfman's native Chile in 1990 when he was writing Death and the Maiden. The success of this country's democracy is still very much in question; while some of its citizens might share Gerardo's optimism, many, especially those who have been victims of the previous administration, are more like Paulina: alone and scared in a darkened room.
Finally, the first scene also establishes the tension in Paulina and Gerardo's relationship. Much of the peace they have found with each other seems to have been built on deception, or at least on a mutual attempt to ignore the most painful aspects of their past. When Paulina, considering Gerardo's appointment to the new Commission, begins to allude to some of the more disturbing events in her life, Gerardo tries to end the conversation, insisting that he "doesn't like to talk about it." His excitement about his new appointment is in direct contrast to Paulina's skepticism: while Gerardo sees great potential in the future, his wife remains unconvinced that the President's Commission will be able to exact any real justice.
Paulina and Gerardo are caught between the love they have for each other and the rift that their past has caused. When we later learn exactly what happened so many years before - Paulina was kidnapped and tortured but refused to give up Gerardo's name to her torturers, thus sparing him the same fate, and that Gerardo cheated on her while she was gone - it becomes clear that one of the major questions the play asks is if their love (or any love) is enough to overcome such life-altering events.
Although Paulina and Gerardo seem to have genuine affection for each other, their love is complicated by lingering resentment. During the scene, Gerardo stresses the importance of getting Paulina's approval before he accepts the President's appointment. It is only after telling her how much he loves her, alluding to the pain that he feels over what happened to her, that Paulina finally gives Gerardo her full approval to accept the position. However, the scene ends with him admitting that he already accepted the President's appointment, which casts doubt on the purity of their love. Instead of inspiring selflessness and sacrifice, both Gerardo and Paulina use love as a tool for manipulation.