In the midst of a civil war, Mama Nadi tries to keep things civil in her place. If a soldier, whether government or rebel, wants a drink or a dance (or more) with one of her girls, they have to leave their bullets on the bar, along with their money. "If things are good, everyone gets a little," this descendant of Bertolt Brecht's mercenary Mother Courage tells her crew of barmaids/prostitutes. "If things are bad, Mama eats first."
But in Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Ruined," which made its world premiere in 2008 at the Goodman and is back now as the first play in Eclipse Theatre Company's all-Nottage season, nothing is that clear-cut, except perhaps the rain forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo that is being chopped down by mining companies in hot pursuit of minerals needed for manufacturing electronics. (The play makes it clear that the civil war itself is as much about who will profit from these "conflict minerals" as it is about ideological differences.)
As for the women, the refuge they find with Mama comes only after enduring unimaginable horrors from soldiers on both sides of the years-long conflict in the Congo, where rape as a weapon of war has become a way of life. In the case of 18-year-old Sophie (Krystal Mosley), a rape by bayonet has left her "ruined" for sexual service. Mama takes her on as a bookkeeper and singer at the pleading of Sophie's uncle, Christian, (Andre Teamer), who procures goods — material and human — for Mama and pines for her acerbic affections. Salima (Brittney Love Smith) bears a scar on her cheek and horrific memories of the day she was assaulted in her garden, and she refuses to speak to her husband, Fortune (Michael Allen Harris), who initially rejected her and stands vigil outside the bar hoping for reconciliation.
Like many of the women raped in the Congo, Sophie and Salima have been re-victimized by their own families who believe that what they suffered means "dishonor." Nottage and the original director of "Ruined," Kate Whoriskey, conducted extensive interviews with Congolese women in researching the play. Despite the occasional turn of phrase in Nottage's script that feels more writerly than vernacular, the play bristles and glistens with the pain, confusion, rage and unexpected joy contained within the "damaged" lives of the women that nimbly works against presenting them as one-dimensional victims.
In director Aaron Todd Douglas' intimate staging (featuring an adroit set and evocative lighting by Kevin Hagan), it's impossible to look away. And given the generally high quality of the performances, one doesn't want to.
TayLar's Mama Nadi anchors the proceedings with weary cynicism that she peels back at just the right moments to reveal deep veins of sympathy for her girls. Though Mosley's Sophie doesn't successfully convey the lingering physical pain that Condola Rashad brought to the role originally, she embodies the shy (and sometimes sly) student painfully trying to rebuild her life. Mosley's singing voice isn't big, but that actually works for a play filled with stories of women who are trying to find their voices again and survive in a place where the men's hands are, as Smith's poignant Salima puts it, "so full of rage that it hurts to be touched."
The same sense of defiant joy that made the Goodman production revelatory infuses Douglas' staging as well, if on a smaller canvas. Some of the supporting performances felt a bit tentative on opening night, but Nottage's play remains just as big-hearted and vital in giving voice to women who refuse to view themselves as irrevocably ruined.
When: Through May 25
Where: Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $28 at 773-935-6875 or eclipsetheatre.comCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun