Saidah Arrika Ekulona and
Quincy Tyler Bernstine in Ruined
(© Joan Marcus)
Saidah Arrika Ekulona and
Quincy Tyler Bernstine in Ruined
(© Joan Marcus)
Lynn Nottage's emotionally devastating and spellbinding new play Ruined, now at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I, in a co-production with Chicago's Goodman Theatre, is the rare work that succeeds spectacularly both as potent political statement and as riveting drama that should not be missed by any serious theatergoer.

Ruined is set in the present-day Congo, where sexual violence against the local women has become the preferred weapon of civil warfare. Through superbly drawn female characters, Nottage gives voice to the victims of these wartime atrocities by honoring not only their suffering but also their strength. In the play's beautifully modulated scenes -- which include some musical performances that bring welcome and appropriately scaled levity to the play's texture -- the playwright also honors their sensuality and spirit.

Like the heroine of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage -- which provides the narrative blueprint and some of the thematic inspiration for the play -- Mama Nadi (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) is a practical, cold-eyed businesswoman who profits as the war rages. As proprietress of a canteen and whorehouse in the middle of the desert, she values trade over political allegiance by welcoming soldiers and rebel fighters alike as long as they can pay. A good deal of the play's escalating dramatic tension comes from our understanding that her policy is doomed to fail. Money and neutrality won't keep the war from her door.

Soon after the play begins, she reluctantly acquires both Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) and Sophie (Condola Rashad) in a two for the price of one deal that has to be sweetened with a box of imported chocolates. Salima, she complains, is too plain looking and Sophie, while pretty, is "ruined" by sexual mutilation at the hands of soldiers and therefore sure to bring bad luck to the business. And as the play progresses, the women -- who include another prostitute, Josefine (Cherise Boothe) -- endure increasingly hostile visits from soldiers on both sides of the war, including a pair of brutal rebel commanders (Chris Chalk and Kevin Mambo).

Despite some lighter business that sounds notes of hope and humanity, such as th banter between Mama and a gentlemanly traveling salesman Christian (Russell Gebert Jones), the play seldom lets us forget the potential for violence is always one step away. Salima's wrenching second-act monologue, which tells of the character's horrific ordeal and which Bernstine delivers with harrowing directness, is especially bracing.

Under Kate Whoriskey's clarifying and supremely confident direction, the production is remarkable for its sure command of tone and its success at honoring both the play's darkest scenes as well as its most hopeful. The acting by the entire cast is uniformly superb and unusually cohesive, with Ekulona, believably tough and resilient as Mama; Rashad, who emphasizes Sophie's resourcefulness, and Jones, who economically communicates Christian's decency, among its standout performers.

What may be most extraordinary about Ruined, however, is that Nottage is able to shine a cold light on on the grim realities for these women without ever lapsing into tabloid sensationalism or the sort of preachiness that is a common pitfall of much politically conscious theater. In the end, the play both informs the audience with torn-from-the-headlines urgency and holds us in rapt attention.