Playwright Danai Gurira infuses her script with both compassion and fire. Liesl Tommy directs with specificity. Germán Cárdenas, designing, furnishes a rough-hewn shack. At the outset, the central figures address one another numerically. Number 1, also Helena (Stacey Sargeant), has been there for a while and, one infers, might be unable to conceive. Smart but resigned, she attempts to counsel others. Actress Pascale Armand plays Number 3 or Bessie who is pregnant and less than thrilled with her condition. She tries to vent her feelings upon newest member of the group, Number 4 or The Girl (Adepero Oduye). Impressionable, Number 4 is also able to read and finds, of all books, a Bill Clinton biography. See comedy!
Number 2 or Maima (Zainab Jah) does her best to recruit The Girl, and a portion of the second act of the play transpires outside of the living space. Maima, sinewy and charismatic, lures The Girl for a time.
Shona Tucker plays Rita, the humanitarian visitor who attempts to reason and advise the women. Perhaps they will be able to leave the confines. Is it possible for someone from the outside to offer context if not hope?
The first act of Eclipsed is fervent, agitating, and fully sustaining. During its second hour, Gurira develops the plot and lends further complexity. While I both appreciate and understand the motive for continuance, I would have been quite pleased to wander out into the night after the initial seventy minutes and contemplate characters and implications during my one-hour drive homeward.
The level of performance during the entirety of the show is inspiring. These women are each unique and the actors fully comprehend individual characters and varying perspectives. Exchanges may be cutting or warm; at other times loving or, perhaps, caustic. The playwright went to Liberia to research her play and she speaks with authenticity. She manages to weave in exchanges which are surprisingly amusing; the counterpoint is helpful.
Cárdenas' evocative set immediately captures one's attention. Before one word is uttered, we are transported to an unfamiliar scene. The conveyance of atmosphere assists both writer Gurira and director Tommy. The structure is coarse, rugged, and unfinished. Long tree branches are situated stage left and right for sequences, later, which occur outside. Costumer Elizabeth Barrett Groth's excellent wardrobe choices add tone.
Gurira wishes to provide voice for women she interviewed, and others in Liberia. The actors selected for this production are asked to: investigate individual characters and then fully embody these women. The wives are conflicted since their situations are all oppressive. Numbers 1, 3, and 4 do not necessarily agree. Number 2, by description, is set apart. The play is, to some measure, one of camaraderie and solidarity. The playwright has a cogent story to tell and she does so through an ensemble of ardent actors whose performances are really quite special. This is realistic, deep-rooted theater.
Eclipsed continues at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven through November 14th. For tickets, call the box office at (203) 432-1234 or visit www.yalerep.org.
- Fred Sokol