Theater review: 'Ruined' at Geffen Playhouse
The brothel setting of Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Ruined,” the powerful and still horrifyingly topical drama that opened Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse, is a sanctuary of sorts for the women employed there. Victims of the bloody military turmoil that has turned the Democratic Republic of Congo into a tragedy without resolution, these mothers and daughters have been so brutalized that working in this sporting house for gun-slinging warriors is preferable to scrounging in the bush or being penned up in a refugee camp
Mama Nadi (Portia) presides over her cheerfully tawdry nightclub like a cynical den mother who isn’t about to let sympathy for her staff interfere with her balance sheet. These young women have been through hell, but to her, that’s only more reason they should be grateful for the shelter and sustenance she provides.
This holds especially true for the two new girls she’s taken in at the urging of Christian (Russell G. Jones), an affable merchant who brings supplies when he can get past the teens with assault rifles demanding tolls on the main road. Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) is on the plain side and understandably has a woebegone personality that isn’t likely to tease money out of the regular customers. And Sophie (a heartbreaking Condola Rashad), though brighter and prettier, is of even more limited use: She’s “ruined,” after being raped by a bayonet and left for dead.
“Look, militia did ungodly things to the child,” Christian informs Mama. The 18-year-old Sophie, his niece, has lingering physical discomfort evident in every step she takes. Bribing the crusty proprietress with Belgian chocolate, Christian gets her to begrudgingly accept his sister's only child as part of a package deal.
Fortunately, Mama takes a liking to this wounded beauty, who makes up in singing and bookkeeping what she can no longer provide in sex. And as the plot develops in a succession of hard-hitting scenes that juggle perhaps one too many storylines, Mama and Sophie are revealed to have more in common than either could comfortably admit.
Nottage’s play has been enormously successful, which is quite a feat given the grim subject matter and our ability as Americans to tune out parts of the world we would rather not think about. How does the playwright manage to get us to pay attention to what the nightly newscasts only flittingly report for fear of losing viewers? She concentrates on the women not as generalized victims but as individual survivors, with specific histories, longings, strengths and shortcomings.
“Ruined” dramatizes female resiliency. To the question of “What happened?” these women can humbly answer, "I didn’t die.” Nottage, who interviewed Congolese refugees in Uganda as part of her research, explores the camaraderie among her characters -- the curious bond between Mama and Sophie, the supportive shadowing of Sophie and Salima and their strained relationship with Josephine (Cherise Boothe), Mama’s busiest worker, who torments them like a spoiled sibling not about to concede pride of place.
Men rule here by brute force, but in the brothel, they must abide by Mama's rules and leave their bullets at the bar. Mr. Harari (Tom Mardirosian), a furtive white diamond trader who carries a whiff of the colonial exploitation that led to the current anarchic state of coups and insurrections, admires Mama’s business acumen—her ruthlessness tickles him as he laps liquor at her bar while lusting after Josephine, who would desperately like to escape with him to the city.
Gripping, suspenseful and occasionally harrowing, the play, which began as an adaptation of Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” set in the Congo, has more lightness than one might expect. Directed by Kate Whoriskey, this co-production with Seattle’s Intiman Theatre (where Whoriskey is artistic director) has the same lively tempo that distinguished her staging at the Manhattan Theatre Club, where I first saw the play.
Taking place on a set designed by Derek McLane that lends Mama’s makeshift bar, decked with Christmas lights, a crumbling gaiety, the production features original music by Dominic Kanza that’s performed onstage by Simon Shabantu Kashama and Ron McBee. Rashad’s exquisite singing, a songbird lament revved by necessity for entertainment, is matched by explosions of Boothe's double-jointed dancing.
Many of the cast members, including Bernstine, Rashad, Boothe and Jones, originated their roles, and the long history is apparent in the depth and ease of their acting. Portia, who took over the part of Mama during the extended New York run, doesn’t have quite the same guttural ferocity as Saidah Arrika Ekulona, whose performance at MTC was every bit as searing as Rashad’s. Portia has a gentler, more conciliatory presence, and her tyrannical flourishes can thus seem like affectations. The jagged contradictions of the character are softened, but on the plus side, the actress generates great sympathy as Mama’s story is reluctantly drawn out through Christian’s dogged devotion.
“Ruined” has been criticized for an ending that has seemed too pat and upbeat. The problem, however, isn’t that Nottage doesn’t leave us drowning in despair (there’s more than enough to go around), but that the plot resolves itself on a note of conventional romance overcoming the impossible. You can hear the Broadway crybabies, myself among them, sniffling on cue.
Nottage has clearly made a conscious artistic choice. Mama has no patience for the romantic novels her workers adore, but her heart isn’t dead, just long buried in the business of survival. Yet what moved me most about “Ruined” were the quieter displays of stamina among the women, those moments that didn't need to plead for our tears. Chief among these is the light that miraculously continues to flicker in Sophie's eyes even after so much darkness.
"Ruined," Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 17. $45 to $75. www.geffenplayhouse.com or (310) 208-5454. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.
Photos: Top: Portia, center, with Cherise Boothe, left, and Condola Rashad, right. Bottom: Portia and Russell G. Jones. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times