The Democratic Republic of Congo is not a safe place to be. A vicious civil war is destroying the nation and everyone is at risk, including the denizens of Mama Nadi’s bar and brothel, a rundown bar in a small mining town.
So begins the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s season closer, a production of Lynn Nottage’s Ruined.
A proud, independent woman, Mama (the sensationally appealing Heather Alicia Simms) is a saloon keeper with a heart of gold and machete behind the bar. A beautiful woman whose colorful dresses stand in stark contrast to the soldiers’ military fatigues (Janus Stefanowicz is responsible for thoughtful costume design), Mama is unwilling to take sides in the conflict between the rebel forces and the government’s military, explaining: “In my house I try to keep everyone happy.” It is perilous balancing act, considering both the rebels and the government forces visit Mama’s on a regular basis. Despite her efforts to keep the conflict beyond her front door (Mama insists the soldiers empty their weapons before being served) it seems only a matter of time before the establishment becomes part of the war zone.
Like Mama, Nottage doesn’t take sides in the civil war. Regardless of their allegiance, the soldiers are all equally barbaric and the cruelty they show toward the women is both gratuitous and sickening. But Ruined is not relentlessly depressing; Nottage does express the belief that even in the most horrendous environment, love can survive.
The cast assembled by director Maria Mileaf is uniformly strong. In addition to the terrific Simms, Keona Welch is heartbreaking as the 15-year-old Sophie, who in the shocking opening scene is sold to Mama by her caring uncle Christian (Oberon K.A. Adjepong in a complicated but effective performance). Christian knows that at least with Mama, Sophie will be fed, housed and kept relatively safe. Taken from her village, the young girl was brutally raped by soldiers and is now considered “ruined” goods. Considering what Sophie has endured, we find ourselves viewing Mama more as a savior than a slave owner.
Ruined is a curious choice for the Pulitzer. The award is given “for a distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life.” We can forgive Ruined for not dealing with American life, but the play’s clumsy plotting makes it an odd choice for an award that celebrates a play’s script and not a particular production. Featuring several implausible scenes and scenarios, Ruined requires us to occasionally suspend our disbelief. It’s not hard to do and despite the plot improbabilities and the occasional stock character, PTC’s production is undeniably involving theater.
What makes the play so gripping is the emotional connection Nottage forges between the audience and the characters. The action may be taking place in a third-world rainforest, but we come to care deeply for Mama and her girls, and the few decent men who use the bar as a temporary refuge from the war.
Most Philadelphians only have a vague knowledge about war in the DRC. To many, it’s just another bewildering conflict in a far-flung region of the globe. In one of the play’s most chilling passages, the play’s lone white character, Mr. Harari (a kind entrepreneur played by the excellent Paul Meshejian), reveals that the most precious mineral in the region’s mines isn’t diamonds or gold, but coltan, an essential component in laptops and cell phones. The thought that our everyday technological devices play a role in the mutilations and killings occurring in the DNC makes Nottage’s play seem not only tragic, but deeply personal.
Through June 12. $46-$59. Suzanne Roberts Theatre. 480 S. Broad St. 215.985.0420.
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