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Theater review: 'Eclipsed' at Kirk Douglas Theatre

September 22, 2009 |  4:00 pm

Eclipsed 1

Set in war-gouged Liberia in 2003, Danai Gurira’s “Eclipsed” follows the day-to-day travails of a group of women held as “wives” of the commanding officer of a rebel army camp. Overlooked casualties in the bloody upheaval of this African nation, these captives, referred to by number rather than name, prove amazingly adept at accommodating themselves to an ever-more brutalizing reality.

This worthy if at times amorphous drama, which opened Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, bears similarities to Lynn Nottage’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Ruined,” a more potent exploration of the fallout of state violence on women (in Nottage’s case, denizens of a Congolese brothel patronized by warriors). Both works, while deeply compassionate in their witnessing of horror, are interested in understanding their complicated and often complicit female characters as something more than victims — the usual condescendingly Western way of relating to African hardship.

But “Eclipsed” proceeds in a less dramatically heightened fashion; its narrative arcs, while undeniably momentous, aren't, for the most part, sharply pronounced. In fact, the U.S.-born, Zimbabwe-raised Gurira — best known for “In the Continuum,” the play paralleling the situations of AIDS in inner-city Los Angeles and Africa that she co-wrote and starred in with Nikkole Salter — lends the impression of eavesdropping on conversations, which she sets down in a dialect that isn’t always easy to decipher.

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Gurira is obviously trying to capture the rhythm of these women’s coping strategies and the rhyme of their compromised choices. The overall result doesn't have much propulsive force, but there’s a refreshing lack of sensationalism.

The plot centers on a bright teenage newcomer to the camp known as the Girl (Miriam F. Glover). She’s being protected by Number One (Bahni Turpin), a no-nonsense, prematurely faded maternal presence, and Number Three (Edwina Findley), ebullient, pregnant and wanting forever to remain the youngest and prettiest.

When Number Two (Kelly M. Jenrette), whose absence has chilled Number One into a forbidding silence on the subject, returns with a bag of rice and an AK-47 slung across her shoulder, she’s shunned as a devil by her predecessor. Yet this rabble-rouser is proud that she’s moved from confined concubine to combatant, and taking note of the new addition to the camp, is eager to scare up fresh recruits.

The Girl, who entertains her camp-mates by reading a fat tome about Bill Clinton and his sex scandals (inciting some wry gender commentary along the way), eventually will have to choose between books and bullets — a choice not limited to African battlefields, as residents of America’s gang-ridden cities can surely attest. The moral stakes here will be forcefully articulated when Rita (Michael Hyatt), who’s part of a network of women peace-makers, presents an empowering alternative to the different forms of bondage and degradation that have warped even the ability to envision a less oppressive future. 

Given the schematic nature of the conflict, the story should more or less tell itself. Yet Gurira’s episodic handling seems divided between humanizing our sense of history and shaping a compelling tale. By splitting the difference, she drains her drama of some of its urgency.

The production, directed by Robert O’Hara, respectfully adheres to the play’s idiosyncratic tempo and cadences. Indeed, the most memorable scenes are the ones depicting quotidian rituals, in which the characters played by Findley, Turpin and Glover momentarily relax into an intimate community. Tellingly, a few false notes creep into the ensemble when Gurira pushes the action toward a hurried resolution.

Not that the play should ever be mistaken for a “slice of life.” For all of the playwright's background research, the realism has been processed and packaged for an American audience. Following suit, the staging, featuring a verdant set by Sibyl Wickersheimer and colorful costumes by Alex Jaeger, conjures a world that is perhaps more imaginatively self-enclosed than locatable on a map.
“Eclipsed” can best be classified as a kind of theatrical sociology. And interestingly, if not paradoxically, this is the source of both its artistic weakness and its cultural strength.

--Charles McNulty

"Eclipsed," Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends Oct. 18. $20 to $45. (213) 628-2772. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

Photo: Top: From left, Edwina Findley, Miriam F. Glover and Bahni Turpin. Bottom: Glover and Kelly M. Jenrette. Credit: Christine Cotter/ Los Angeles Times