The ways in which men’s wars leave women’s dreams “Eclipsed” are systematically enumerated in Danai Gurira’s new play, its portrayal of chaos so potent as to inspire nearly simultaneous productions in three major U.S. resident theaters. At the Kirk Douglas (whose staging follows the play’s D.C. premiere at Woolly Mammoth and precedes its October bow at Yale Rep), text comes off as an impassioned set of arguments rather than a fully dramatic event, at least until its final half-hour. But acting and design rich with the genuine breath of life more than compensate for a dearth of action.
Gurira — co-author of the powerful study of women coping with HIV, “In the Continuum” — shrewdly sets her investigation of wartime empowerment during Liberia’s civil conflict (1989-2003), notable for the vast number of its women put directly in harm’s way, either in battle gear or at peace rallies.
Still, in one warlord’s ramshackle jungle HQ, his wives play the more typical role of sitting around waiting for the “Big Man” to request their services. Or for something, anything, to happen.
Identified only by number, these near-concubines adopt differing strategies to maintain power and rank. Wife No. 1 (Bahni Turpin) assigns tasks and divvies up goodies with an iron fist. Spouse No. 3 (Edwina Findley) carries the boss’ child that she doesn’t want but hopes will bring her favors, as she frets about the ratty wig that, she claims, makes her resemble Janet Jackson.
Wife No. 2 (Kelly M. Jenrette) has joined the workforce as a full-time soldier and recruiter for some rebel faction. She’s not sure what she’s fighting for, but at least she’s earned a battle name (“Disgruntled”) and a defense against abuse: “No one gon jump me again. … Just go get a gun.” That last advice is proffered to a young newcomer (Miriam F. Glover) reluctant merely to take up the mantle of No. 4.
The waiting-game chatter, consisting of squabbling and gossip in equal measure, carries awesome authenticity thanks to Gurira’s first-hand reportage on site (with kudos to dialect coach Joel Goldes). The actresses invest their roles with specific gestures and rhythms without which they might come across as one-dimensional, if well-observed, types.
Their comic timing is equally effective. There’s wry amusement as No. 4 reads aloud the one book on hand, a portrait of America’s “big man, Bill Clinto’,” and the ladies speculate on this Monica person, his evidently troublesome No. 2.
But despite helmer Robert O’Hara’s energizing efforts, the play succumbs to situational inertia well into act two, which opens with a lengthy dialectic between No. 2 and visiting peace worker Rita (Michael Hyatt). We have no emotional investment in Rita, and No. 2 is defiant in her militarism, so the women’s conflicts are swatted around to no ultimate purpose.
The fuse of the play’s powder keg only gets lit when the war abruptly ends and, paradoxically, the danger quotient is ratcheted up. These woebegone survivors suddenly have options to take themselves out of bondage, yet perils still lurk within and without.
The manner in which each woman chooses to take up or deny her name, and her fate, is as riveting as anything on a local stage today.
Sibyl Wickersheimer’s jaw-droppingly super-realistic set — stone ruins of a one-time fortress on which the jungle menacingly encroaches — is perfectly lit by Christopher Kuhl, who never lets us forget the surrounding heart of darkness even amidst the brightest sunshine.