“Where was everybody?” howls a young wife, remembering past brutalizations during the central African war of Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Ruined.” The line resonates, as it should: No one stepped forward to protect the girl from marauding guerrillas, any more than the developed world bothered to intervene in Rwanda, the Congo or Darfur. Nottage’s dramatization of six souls’ struggles in war-torn Congo is not only gripping entertainment but something of a call to conscience, honoring the real-life survivors’ indomitable spirit. Helmer Kate Whoriskey’s Geffen Playhouse production, by way of Chicago and Gotham, has lost some crispness but none of its power.
Mama Nadi’s, a brothel cut out of the forest, tries to be an oasis of normalcy as government soldiers and rebels clash throughout the countryside without pattern or warning. The joint is an ideology-free zone, R&R available to anyone whose money is good and whose ammo is parked at the bar.
Mama herself, in the person of the exquisite thesp Portia, exudes bravado as she commands the traffic in her ramshackle hut (designed by Derek McLane to evoke both a welcoming interior and the terrors lurking without). A stern taskmistress with her girls, she will morph on a dime into a flattering hostess to perpetrators of unspeakable atrocities, so long as they leave her be.
Any resemblance to the cynical, obsequious “Mother Courage” isn’t coincidental; Nottage and Whoriskey abandoned an African adaptation of Brecht’s epic after conducting first-person interviews with Congolese female war victims. Nottage turns the testimony into character studies etched with a blood diamond, tied together with just enough plot to keep us rapt.
No visitor to “Ruined” will soon forget Quincy Tyler Bernstine’s halting, haunted Salima, a runaway wife mourning one baby’s loss and another’s forthcoming arrival; Cherise Boothe as the lanky, sensual Josephine, Mama’s veteran employee who still harbors champagne dreams; and especially Condola Rashad’s Sophie, “ruined” below the waist by soldiers’ bayonets but a beacon of hope to those around her. (Her captivating rendition of Nottage and Dominic Kanza’s indigenous songs brings grace to the margins of some pretty harrowing events.)
As the stage fills with customers and combatants, Whoriskey’s sure command of the intimate moments gives way to clutter and rushing, and with the exception of Russell G. Jones’s Christian, a local supplier with a tender yen for Mama, the male roles don’t receive the nuanced treatment allotted to the women. More problematically, thesps of both genders render the thick Swahili accents difficult to make out.
Happily, the acting is marked with such precise physicality – including an entire cultural set of claps, slaps and gestures to indicate ire, delight or emphasis – that missing a few phrases poses no obstacle to appreciating this lunatic garden of evil and the flecks of humanity permitted to blossom within it.