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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Saidah Arrika Ekulona and Quincy Tyler Bernstine.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The rape of the landscape is indistinguishable from the ravagement of the human body in Ruined, Lynn Nottage's searing new play at Manhattan Theatre Club that examines one of the world's deadliest conflicts through the eyes of the women who are dying from it. Young or old, pretty or plain, connected or abandoned, no one is safe; faceless factions warring for any kind of absolutism have an impact on everyone within their blast zone. By the end of this brisk two and a half hours, that will include you.

So don't plan on seeing something as personal as Intimate Apparel or as comedically provocative as Fabulation. While Ruined (a coproduction with Chicago's Goodman Theatre) shares with Nottage's earlier works a perspective on, and an affection for, the driven black woman persevering through an unfriendly existence, its more epic and violent sweep it imbue it with a grander and grittier tone those other plays didn't possess. You can't view this play as historical fiction or as fable. It must be assessed as a horrifying, but unavoidable, part of life today.

For the hostilities that inspired the play when Nottage and her director, Kate Whoriskey (who also directed Fabulation), traveled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2004 still persist now. Whether guns, AIDS, hopelessness, or stripping the land of its valuable deposits of coltan (key to the creation of mobile devices such as cell phones), the methods of attack are myriad. Even those who deal in the business of people - whether entertaining them, selling themselves to them, or even just making nice with them - are in no way immune to the shrapnel.

Mama Nadi (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) is each of these entrepreneurs rolled into one. She's a tavern owner; she's a madam who employs young women to preserve them from the dangers of the world beyond her doors; and she's a peacekeeper who thinks the best way to maintain her livelihood is to take every side. Whether she's visited by the leader of the government's military forces, Commander Osembenga (Kevin Mambo), or the leader of the rebels (Chris Chalk) plotting against him, her modus operandi is identical: Get them all to disarm within her walls, get them a drink, and agree with whatever they say.

Her girls, however, have little such influence. When Mama makes a deal with her smitten salesman friend Christian (Russell Gelbert Jones) to house two new refugees, the average-looking but street-smart Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) and the beautiful and intelligent Sophie (Condola Rashad), she takes on more than she anticipates: Salima is separated from her husband and pregnant as result of a gang rape, while an assault with a bayonet has left Sophie unfit for the most important of Mama's money-making pursuits. And neither is prepared for the secret difficulties of the game that Mama's longest-standing charge, Josephine (Cherise Boothe), has spent years learning.

It takes a while for these diverse elements to coalesce into a single narrative, but when they do it happens with impressive force. Nottage is most interested in revealing the depths of each woman's sacrifices, how Mama's political strategizing are as capable of destroying her future as surely as Sophie's innocence, Salima's retaliatory attitude, or Josephine's acquiescence are theirs. But she doesn't shy from demonstrating how institutional corruption can taint the purest souls: Mama coerces teetotaler Christian into downing three glasses of whiskey at Osembenga's behest; and when the ostensibly fair-minded jewelry dealer Mr. Harari (Tom Mardirosian) is faced with saving two lives or merely his own, it's clear that a sane world wouldn't provide him the choice he makes.

Nottage's point is that there are no rules here, that order cannot always be found in chaos, and this is smoothly underscored throughout the production. Whoriskey's staging, so light-handed and spry on Derek McLane's sprawlingly suffocating set, intensely camouflages the encroaching darkness, but builds up the tension so gradually that it both relieves and shocks when it finally explodes. The performers are largely exquisite, creating a homey but harried community simmering with rage and loss too deep to express. It comes across most in Bernstine's smoky, slow-percolating despair, and Rashad's touchingly despondent hopefulness, but even the hardest-edged combatants on the field can elicit some sympathy - however temporary.

Ekulona is a touch uneven in the earliest scenes, but eventually makes Mama a powerful Earth Mother Courage, evoking all the drive and desperation necessary in a woman striving to hold together the collapsing empires both inside and outside her home. Almost throughout, she makes Mama's struggle engrossing, vivid, heartbreaking, and human, an unsettlingly specific picture of the blight war casts even when the body count is low.

Only in the final scene, set in the smoldering aftermath of Mama's calamitous choices, does Nottage falter. The pat answers and feel-good morality she introduces suggest easier solutions to the toughest questions than she otherwise allows as possibilities. One suspects she wants to show that, even in the bloodiest battles, hope doesn't need to be a casualty.

But there's no lack of hope here. The real revolutionaries are Mama, Sophie, Salima, and Josephine, who are all fighting for better lives for themselves and those who will come after. Nottage has written them so wisely and so truthfully that you sense at least the seeds of success within even their most devastating failures. No more is needed. What's there is so inspiriting that even when Nottage's last-minute clich├ęs threaten to diminish and denature what's come before, it turns out that nothing can ruin Ruined.

Through March 29
Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center —Stage I, 131 West 55th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: New York City Center

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