Playwright Lynn Nottage puts a human face on the ongoing Civil War in the Democratic Republic of Congo in her Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Ruined, now in its West Coast Premiere engagement at the Geffen Playhouse.

In place of cold fact headlines (War in Congo kills 45,000 people each month/Decade-long conflict is most deadly since 1945/Half of dying are small children, survey shows), Nottage focuses on The Best Little Whorehouse in a small mining town in the Ituri Rainforest. Run by longtime survivor Mama Nadi (Portia), Ruined’s own 21st Century Mother Courage, Mama Nadi’s is the place where soldiers on either side of the fighting come for R&R, Mama’s first rule being “No Ammunition” inside the four walls of her establishment.

At lights up, Mama has been visited by traveling salesman Christian (Russell G. Jones), who offers her a deal on a pair of new additions to her stable of sex workers. The first is Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), a young wife and mother who was kidnapped from her village and used as a sex slave for half a year. The second is his niece Sophie (Condola Rashad), whose bayonet rape has left her “ruined.” Though Mama Nadi is at first reluctant to take on both women, she finally agrees to Christian’s offer, Sophie and Salima joining Josephine (Cherise Boothe) and the other seven (unseen) women who provide pleasure for soldiers, no matter which side of the battle they are on.

It took this reviewer until the end of Act One to become fully engaged in Ruined, perhaps because the combination of a talky first act and harder-than-usual accents to decipher made for a potentially lethal combination. Fortunately, as the play’s focus turned to the personal dramas surrounding Mama Nadi and the young women who call her house their home, Ruined became the engaging, moving work of fact-based theater that has won over critics and audiences alike.

With the exception of the wondrous Portia, who joined the cast of Ruined in its New York engagement at the Roundabout, most of the cast as well as director Kate Whoriskey have been with Nottage’s play since its World Premiere at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. It’s no wonder then that Bernstine, Boothe, Tom Mardirosian (as diamond dealer Mr. Harari, the sole Caucasian customer), and Rashad do such splendid work here. The raspy-voiced Bernstine dazzles in Salima’s heartbreaking monolog about her capture and sexual imprisonment, Rashad shows off gorgeous vocal skills as Mama Nadi’s “song stylist,” and Jones in particular does vivid, three-dimensional work as the traveling salesman who just might hold the key to a (figuratively) ruined Mama Nadi’s happiness. Completing the fine Geffen cast are Tongavi Chirisa, Carl Cofield (memorable as Salima’s husband Fortune), David St. Louis (an appropriately menacing Commander Osembenga), Stephen Tyrone Williams, and musicians Simon Shabantu Kashama and Ron McBee.

Original Goodman scenic designer Derek McLane has created a Technicolor Mama Nadi’s painted in reds, greens, and yellows, festooned year-round with Christmas lights, and backed by the tree trunks of the surrounding rainforest where soldiers pursue their human prey between scenes. Paul Tazewell’s multihued costumes define both characters and setting. Peter Kaczorowski’s vibrant lighting, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen’s impressive sound design, Dominic Kanza’s original music, and Warren Adams’ choreography all contribute to making Nottage’s vision of Mama Nadi’s come to life. Mary K Klinger is stage manager, assisted by Jennifer Breinen.

After a number of star-propelled productions not reviewed on these pages, Ruined may be a tougher sell for the Geffen, but one well worth the attention of theatergoers seeking meaty, rewarding fare. Far more entertaining than one would ever expect a play about a genocidal civil war to be, Ruined makes an impression sure to last long after its surprisingly uplifting finale.

Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.
–Steven Stanley
September 16, 2010
Photos: Chris Bennion

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