Friday, July 03, 2009

Lynn Nottage's "Ruined"

Last night TCH and I watched this harrowing play, directed by Kate Whoriskey, put up by Manhattan Theatre Club, at New York City Center Stage 1.

Based on interviews with the women victims of Congo's civil war, the play trains the spotlight on Mama Nadi (played by Portia) who runs a bar-and-brothel in a small mining town. The girls recruited to please the soldiers and miners are already victims of rape, and "ruin." The play does not make clear the difference between rape and ruin, but suggests that ruin involves some kind of genital mutilation beyond that of gang rape. Scarred and traumatized themselves, the girls invite the soldiers to "forget their regrets," as one song puts it (all lyrics also written by Nottage), in the bar. A shelter of sorts, the bar is soon invaded by the surrounding war.

What makes the bar so richly symbolic is that it is not only a shelter from violence, it is also a sanctuary from love, and its painful rejections. If violence cracks the bar open to the realities of war, it also opens the bar to the possibility of love. The plot turns on the actions of love, the first a devastation, the second a salvation.

I am not sure why but I remained very detached from the action on stage before intermission. Perhaps the material is so dark I found myself resisting any artistic treatment of it. Or else I was being self-protective. But I could not suspend my disbelief. The actors were stubbornly actors play-acting. In the second half, however, the play dissolved my doubts, and absorbed me. The point at which this began to happen was Sophie's monologue. I was unimpressed by Susan Heyward (an understudy) up to that point, but the relative artlessness of the monologue drew me in. She narrated very simply how a group of soldiers, after raping her, tied her in a forest clearing, "like a goat," to cook and wash and satisfy them sexually. After she escaped, her village rejected her for being "ruined," and her husband, ashamed of her, chased her out. She was probably telling the story of someone's actual experience.

The other two girls who work in the bar are Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) and Josephine (Cherise Booth). Both actors were good, if a little one-dimensional. Portia, who played Mama Nadi, came to life for me in the second half of the play. The revelation was Russell G. Jones, who played Christian, the trader who wooed Mama Nadi. Nicknamed the Professor, he was, in a sense, the heart and mind of the play, but filled his role with such vulnerable swagger that he was entirely believable. The men who played rebel and government commanders were suitably frightening but adhered to that label.

It was a tight and interesting production, by Donald Fried. The set, designed by Derek McLane, surrounded the relative openness of the bar with the encroaching trees, and so nicely reinforced the significance of Mama Nadi's place.

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