Lynn Nottage does not shy away from a tough subject in "Ruined." Although its story about sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo is not always easy to watch, this Pulitzer Prize-winning play features female characters that you want to watch in a production at Fells Point Corner Theatre that generally conveys the play's emotional intensity.
In any event, Baltimore theatergoers have had previous opportunities to watch this contemporary playwright's work. Nottage's "Intimate Apparel" and "Crumbs from the Table of Joy" have been done at Center Stage. This more recent play has a similar devotion to showing how women survive difficult social conditions.
"Ruined" takes place entirely within a bar and an adjacent bedroom in a country devastated by a civil war and its lingering violence. Mama Nadi (Valerie Lewis) is the middle-aged owner of the establishment. She's a no-nonsense businesswoman whose female employees serve drinks, dance with the customers and also work as prostitutes. Mama Nadi's considerable survival skills involve overseeing her ethically dubious business in such a way that she is a strict boss and yet also expresses a measure of sympathy for these working girls.
Her diplomatic skills are really put to the test by the customers, because some of them are soldiers and others are the rebels fighting the soldiers. When the door opens, you never really know who will walk in next. Her ability to maintain order here doesn't exactly make her a saint, but it does speak to a strong character whose emotional complexity typifies a play in which people are trying to survive as best they can.
One of the few customers with whom Mama Nadi is almost completely at ease basically qualifies as a longtime friend. A middle-aged, sophisticated fellow who clearly has survival skills of his own, Mr. Harari (Richard Peck) is also the only white character in the play; as such, he represents the remnants of the colonial presence in Africa. Both actors establish a nice rapport in their conversations, even though Peck's hard-to-define accent never quite settles on a specific nationality.
Mama Nadi has another friend who hangs out at the bar a lot, Christian (Tyrone Requer), and their conversations also help inform the audience about the civil strife that increasingly threatens what little stability remains within this little bar.
The terrible consequences for women in this society are made clear when two young women, Salima (Yakima Rich) and Sophie (Chevee Crafton), come to work at the bar. The most compelling aspect of "Ruined" involves the description of their personal histories. Although these young women are victims, their society further victimizes them by categorizing them as ruined women who are to be shunned. The actors playing Salima and Sophie admirably establish how these abused women are now so traumatized that they're nearly silent.
When these principal characters are engaged in conversations with each other, this production generates enough dramatic tension. It's not always as effective with scenes involving a considerable number of soldiers, rebels and prostitutes. This is partly because some of the supporting performances, such as Dionne Johnson as a prostitute named Josephine, are so overstated that they're funny in ways beyond what's intended.
Unlike Nottage's disciplined writing, director Barry Feinstein's production tends to be unruly. Besides the uneven acting, it's mildly unsettling to see how this staging makes the frequent transitions between the bar and the bedroom. Although the turntable-style method of going from one set design to another is smart, it's jarring that a jukebox in the bar is simply left in place when that part of the stage becomes a bedroom.
This production could be more consistently powerful, but it does hold your attention. Like the character known as African Drummer (James "Djuann" Ray) who pounds that instrument between and sometimes within scenes, "Ruined" loudly announces that it has a dramatically serious agenda.
"Ruined" runs through June 3 at Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St., in Baltimore. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. There also are Thursday performances May 24 and 31 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $17 Friday and Saturday, $15 Sunday, $10 Thursday. Call 410-276-7837 or go to fpct.org.