When experienced in the intimacy of the Public’s LuEsther Theater earlier this season, Danai Gurira’s searing drama about women’s roles in the Liberian civil war had an extraordinarily visceral impact. With only 177 seats in the house, audience and performers seemed to be breathing the same air. One wondered whether that connection would be broken when the show moved to a much larger Broadway theater. Not to worry. The 900-seat Golden Theater was originally designed to be an intimate house, a good fit for small-scaled, serious plays, of which “Eclipsed” is decidedly one. And while the $95 top-priced ticket was a draw for downtown theatergoers, at a new top of $145, the show hits the sweet spot for the serious New York theater crowd — the ideal audience for this intense drama — that often feels overlooked and underserved on Broadway.
Playwright Danai Gurira — also the actress best known as Michonne on “The Walking Dead” — delivers politics with passion in this searing drama about the decisive roles women played in the second Liberian civil war — during which warlords conscripted child soldiers, ate each other’s hearts and performed human sacrifice. Superbly directed by Liesl Tommy and powerfully acted by a strong ensemble led by the Oscar-winning star of “12 Years a Slave,” Lupita Nyong’o, the play gives voice to women ranging from the wives of warlords to activists in Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, the political action group that brought an end to the war.
Meticulously detailed design work by Clint Ramos (set and costumes), Jen Schriever (lighting) and Broken Chord (sound) presents a surreal — or perhaps hyper-real — setting of the bullet-riddled one-room hovel where the captured wives and, inevitably, the bastard children of a base commander of the rebel Liberian army are housed. The women are colorfully clothed in authentic but well-worn native dress, and when they aren’t servicing their unseen lord and master, they remain sequestered in this small room, cooking for him, laundering his clothes and awaiting his every command.
Helena (the quietly dignified Saycon Sengbloh) is wife #1, the stern and sensible heart of the household. Bessie (Pascale Armand, enchanting) is wife #3, bubbly and babyish, although soon to deliver a baby of her own. There’s not a sign of Maima (the vivacious Zainab Jah), who, although still officially wife #2, has run off to join the rebel army, a sexy soldier “fighting for freedom” in provocative halter tops and bejeweled jeans.
A 15-year-old orphan known only as the Girl (a heartbreaker, in Nyong’o’s lovely performance) has fled the fighting and taken refuge with the wives, who hide her as best they can under a washtub. But this beautiful virgin is found out, and to her everlasting sorrow becomes wife #4.
The play is about the three-way struggle for the Girl’s heart and soul, artfully reflecting the difficult choices that every Liberian girl must make when she becomes a woman. Will she put herself under the protection of a powerful warlord, as the commander’s two remaining wives have done? Should she make her own destiny and become a soldier, like the swaggering Maima? Or will women like Rita (the forthright Akosua Busia) convince her that true survival — of self, and more important, of home and country — lies in joining the Peace Women of Liberia and working to end the civil war?
The Girl may be young and unsophisticated, but she’s no dummy, and in Nyong’o’s intelligent performance, she’s a boldly independent thinker. Unnerved by the dehumanization of the wives, she impresses on them the importance of knowing who you are, how old you are and where you come from. Although it’s sadly ironic that she herself has no given or family name, she instinctively understands that clinging to one’s own identity keeps a woman from becoming a slave.
The playwright’s argument is that women may be politically powerless, but they have other assets — like moral strength, dignity, and compassion — to draw upon in order to survive man-made wars without giving up their own humanity. The Girl may be too young and inexperienced to know which path she wants to take, but she’s brave enough to listen to the arguments of both the soldiers and the peacemakers. And while Gurira boldly leaves the Girl’s final decision unresolved, she’s unafraid to give every woman a voice in her own destiny.