Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Ruined is, unsurprisingly, an intense and sometimes difficult play to watch. The lives and bodies of its Congolese women have been altered by the men fighting a savage, ongoing war. And the women — raped, abused, terrorized — are regarded as mere spoils of that war.
Those brutal truths are woven throughout Nottage’s script. Yet if you go to see the new production of Ruined at GableStage — and if powerful drama speaks to you, you should — you will also witness a rich spectrum of action and feeling. Ruined contains calculation, sacrifice, the cleansing of wounds both physical and spiritual. Lust and rivalry, humor and affection are part of the story. And so, however improbably, is love.
This superb production is the work of director Joseph Adler at his most artful and a large cast at theirs. These actors — particularly Lela Elam, Renata Eastlick, Robert Strain, Jade Wheeler, Sheaun McKinney, Keith Wade, Marckenson Charles and Trenell Mooring — are among the region’s best, and in a perfect world, their talents would be showcased far more frequently on South Florida stages.
The play is set in a bar and brothel in the war-torn eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Surrounded by jungle, moist from the frequent rains, the bar (a multilevel space bedecked with colored lights and designed by Lyle Baskin) is an everyman’s land operated by the crafty, opportunistic Mama Nadi (Elam). In Mama’s world, soldiers and rebels are equally welcome, as long as they park their ammunition at the door. That apolitical stance expands her market reach, doubling the customers who gather to swill her watered-down booze and take their pleasure with her “girls.”
Young as Mama’s employees are, each is a damaged survivor. Life in Congo, with its horrors and trauma, has made innocence a distant memory.
Josephine (Eastlick), seems to be the most calculating and self-possessed of the girls. But watch Eastlick as her fierce, wildly lusty dancing gives way to an explosive expression of the anger and sorrow running just below the surface of her seductive façade.
Sophie (Wheeler) and Salima (Mooring) are the newest arrivals, brutalized teens brought to Mama by Christian (Strain), a traveling salesman and sometime poet who fancies the lady of the house.
Held captive and repeatedly victimized by soldiers, rejected by her young husband and family, Salima looks at the world through pain-filled eyes. The story behind that pain, revealed with heartbreaking simplicity by Mooring, is one of the play’s most devastating moments.
Pretty Sophie cannot do what Mama’s girls are expected to do for the customers. Raped with a bayonet, she can barely move her “ruined” body, and pain is her constant companion. Yet she proves useful, as a singer (accompanied by guitarist Verdi M. Mayer Jr. and drummer Maracuja), as an entertaining reader of romantic stories, as a kind of accountant for Mama, whose tough exterior hides a secret.
Ruined is a play that belongs to its women. Except for Strain’s good-hearted Christian and David Kwiat’s kooky diamond merchant Harari, the men are the source of ruin — of people, of peace, of their country. The uniforms differ, but the cruelty is the same. That said, McKinney and Wade are frighteningly effective as the government and rebel commanders. And Charles is quite moving as a man who realizes, too late, what stubborn pride has lost him.
It is Elam, however, who dominates the play as clearly as Mama Nadi rules her kingdom. Omnipresent, mixing seductiveness and pragmatic tyranny, Elam crafts a character whose vulnerability remains resolutely hidden. Yet the play’s final image, a moment exquisitely realized by Adler, Strain and Elam, underscores the transformative power of hope. Like Elam, it takes your breath away.