by Hugh Hunter
Now running at Stagecrafters, 8130 Germantown Ave., “Ruined” takes you to a mining town in the war-torn Congo. Written by Lynn Nottage, the play was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2009.
There have been many newspaper accounts of the horrors in Central Africa with all of its child soldiers, machete dismemberments and endemic gang rapes. Nottage took the trouble to travel to Uganda to hear first-hand stories from women who had fled the Congo.
As the play opens, Christian (Maurice A. Tucker) transports two girls to the bordello of Mama Nadi (played by Tiffany Bacon with great stage presence). One is Salima (Erin Nicole Stewart), raped and captured by soldiers, then abandoned by her entire village for shaming the community.
The other is Sophie (Liz Priestly), who turns out to be Christian’s niece. She too was gang-raped, butchered so badly she can barely walk. Sophie finds some safety working as Nadi’s accountant and barroom chanteuse. (Priestley is a strong singer.)
Drifting in and out are gangs of soldiers. Director Catherine Pappas has them wear the same sort of dull military uniform, making these loudmouth louts so ludicrous and nondescript you have trouble distinguishing the government men from the rebels.
The few men who are not predatory are weak and ineffectual. Mr. Harari (Paul Diferdinando) is a white colonialist leftover who now lives a precarious and meaningless life. Christian is a poet, called “professor” in derision, who learns to tame his fears with booze.
Pappas uses a daring set (design, Richard Stewart) where a barroom wall turns to create a bedroom. In one scene, sexy Josephine (Carlene Pochette) gaily entertains the soldiers in the bar. Then after a dark pause, we see her alone and sobbing in the bedroom, the kind of public-to-private moment turnaround you see in the movies.
Playwright Nottage tries to liven up “Ruined” with a little action. Fortune (Brian Neal) tries to reclaim his wife Salima. Mama Nadi has a change of heart and tries to send Sophie away from the dangerous countryside.
But both these actions are poorly motivated. “Ruined” does not tell a story as much as it creates a situation where life is so hopelessly violent and chaotic that anything can happen at any time, and the only safety the women can find is to live in a whorehouse.
And as the women await their next calamity, they tell you what has already happened to them, while the emerging relationship between Nadi and Christian suggests that a change in sex roles may be the only way out of this political mess.
“Ruined” is activist documentary in the guise of a play. Raising public consciousness is a legitimate function of theater (since Ibsen, anyway), and for drawing attention to this modern day atrocity, “Ruined” deserves the praise it has won.
“Ruined” will run through April 28. Reservations are available at 215-247-9913.