For all its boisterous energy, Lynn Nottage’s Ruined is a delicate dance of horror and hope. The 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning-play, currently making its regional debut at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, portrays a world consumed by chaos and brutality. But the bleakness is skillfully leavened with disarming interludes of lightness and laughter.
On one level, it is a reportage play: Nottage interviewed survivors of the ongoing civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and her fictional tale reflects their harrowing experiences. But it also contains moments of poetic beauty and universal resonance that lift it beyond journalism into the richer realm of art.
The setting is a brothel, a shabbily festive establishment located in a rural area of the war-torn African nation. Both the government forces and the rebels claim the territory as their own, and when they’re in town, both stop by Mama’s Place for some rest and recreation.
Mama Nadi (Portia) is clearly playing a dangerous game, and there’s never much question that her fortress of foreplay will eventually be overrun. But the domineering proprietress effectively masks any fears with brash declarations that, in her establishment, she is in charge. For one thing, no one gets served before emptying the bullets from his weapon.
She’s a survivor, a brave woman with business savvy, and her persona is strictly what’s-in-it-for-me. But when she takes in two women who literally have nowhere else to go, it becomes clear that her hidden tender side has not completely withered, even in this wasteland.
One of the women (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) becomes a prostitute—the only realistic occupation for someone who has been sexually assaulted, and is thus considered a disgrace to her village. The other (Condola Rashad) has been reproductively “ruined” by brutal rapes and beatings; her effortful walking suggests the deep pain she feels with every step. But she effectively earns her keep with her singing voice and bookkeeping skills.
The other key character is called the Professor. He’s a traveling salesman (and uncle to the “ruined” young woman) who, like Mama Nadi, is doing what he has to do to survive the craziness. Russell G. Jones gives the strongest performance in an outstanding cast, embodying this deeply vulnerable man’s dignity, defiance and earthy good humor.
It’s an imperfect play, a little too diffuse for its own good. From time to time, vividly drawn but secondary characters, such as the charismatic leaders of the opposing militias, virtually hijack the proceedings, drawing the focus away from the women who make up its emotional core.
The musical numbers, featuring an on-stage two-piece band, provide wonderful energy and color, but they’re arguably overextended. Moreover, several characters remain frustratingly under-defined. When one of the prostitutes finally tells her tragic back story, the power of her viscerally moving monologue makes you wish others were given similar opportunities.
Still, Kate Whoriskey’s staging is vivid and lively, and the tender final scene is enormously touching. Ruined contains deliberate echoes of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, but unlike Brecht, she wants the audience to feel an emotional connection to the characters. To say she succeeds is a huge understatement.
Of course, Mother Courage is set during an earlier, European war. Male aggression run amuck, and the resultant violation and victimization of women, is a sadly familiar motif of human history. Nottage reminds us of this by focusing our attention on a place where it is happening right now, today.
Ruined continues through Oct. 17 at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood Village, Los Angeles. Information: (310) 208-5454, or www.geffenplayhouse.com.