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'Ruined' gets forceful staging at Everyman Theatre

Dawn Ursula as Mama Nadi in Lynn Nottage's "Ruined" at Everyman Theatre
Dawn Ursula as Mama Nadi in Lynn Nottage's "Ruined" at Everyman Theatre (Stan Barouh)

As she will be the first to remind you, Mama Nadi is "running a business, not a mission." She only takes on new mouths to feed when they can help contribute to the income of her establishment. And that means being attractive and pliant enough to service the costumers at her combination bar and whorehouse.

Such a place would be dicey enough to maintain under routine circumstances. But Mama Nadi's, the setting for Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Ruined" now receiving a forceful staging at Everyman Theatre, is a mining town in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Rival militias are battling for control of the country, shooting and slicing their way through a defenseless population.

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The soldiers, from both sides of the conflict, travel as much on their hormones as on their stomachs, so they're always showing up at Mama's in between routine bouts of raping and mutilating. And although she requires them to leave their ammunition at the bar, that hardly makes them weapon-less. Threats of one kind or another are never far from either side of the threshold.

How Mama and her "girls" cope and hope is the main focal point of "Ruined," an alternately unnerving, funny, bleak and vaguely optimistic work that's deeply rooted in reality. By putting such a clear and haunted face on the hideous violence that has come to define the Congo, the playwright makes it hard to look sometimes, yet just as hard to look away.

"Ruined" — the title's chilling significance becomes all too clear more than once in the course of the play — feels padded and reiterative at times; some of the dialogue and situations seem forced. But Nottage paints an awfully provocative portrait of a world where anyone with enough might can make the laws and where, most shamefully, the lives of women have been stripped of all value.

With a nod to Bertolt Brecht's searing 1939 play "Mother Courage," "Ruined" is fueled by a powerful maternal figure who isn't so much amoral as morally convenient. Mama Nadi does not care which side is winning the war, as long as the cash keeps flowing, but she does care intensely about survival. And her heart, however cynical and calculating, does have just enough room for those she takes under her wing.

Such a complex character requires an unusually gifted actress, which Everyman happens to have in resident company member Dawn Ursula. She triumphed in the company's production of a very different Nottage work last season, "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark." She triumphs again here.

Ursula truly disappears into the role. She starts by giving Mama an authentic accent and an authentic attitude (you know quickly why only the most intrepid soldier would want to mess with this woman), then adds one nuance after another. Just watch her, in the first scene, savor a chocolate caramel, as if the act of slowly stretching out the gooey center were a means of freezing time, suspending all worries.

The actress finishes by delivering authentic tears, the kind that can easily trigger your own, during the tense and unexpectedly sentimental final portion of the play, when Mama has to face everything she has long avoided — the true toll of war and profit-making from it; the danger of erecting barricades to keep others from getting close to you.

There is much more to admire in the production, which plays out smoothly on Brandon McNeel's masterful set and maintains a vibrant pulse under the finely detailed direction of Tazewell Thompson.

He gets a generally supple response from the large cast, which features one more resident member (Bruce Randolph Nelson as a shady gem dealer) and lots of Everyman debuts, including some current and former Baltimore School for the Arts students. Almost everyone could lower the volume a bit, though; a good deal of dialogue is over-projected.

Zurin Villanueva (Sophie) and Monique Ingram (Salima) effectively convey the lasting physical and emotional damage done to the newest additions to Mama's crew, and the self-respect that has somehow survived in them as well. Villanueva doesn't have quite enough vocal flair for the songs that dot the play, but she communicates their pointed messages.

Although Jason B. McIntosh's grip on an African accent isn't sturdy, he's a compelling, sympathetic presence as Christian, who keeps Mama supplied with merchandise and news. The actor is especially telling in the scene where Christian, a determined Fanta-totaler, is forced by soldiers to down whiskey.

For all of the bleakness in "Ruined," a glimmer of relief and repair can be found amid the fear and chaos. Whenever it seeps into the picture, even for a moment, the effect is deeply affecting. "There must always be a part of you that this war can't touch," Mama says. For her, and those she favors in her defiant orbit, that's victory enough.

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