Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning drama Ruined made its Baltimore premiere at Everyman Theatre officially opening last night, offering a powerfully poignant portrait of barbarically ravaged women who endure continuing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo with quiet stamina and remarkably resiliency.
Directed by internationally-acclaimed director Tazewell Thompson (well known internationally for his work in both the theatrical and operatic world) and set on a vibrantly decorated Congolese bar in the middle of a civil war discerningly designed by Brandon McNeel, Ruined features a first-rate 17-member ensemble, led by Everyman Resident Company Member and 2014 Helen Hayes Recipient Dawn Ursula, who was seen last season as Vera Stark in Nottage’s comedic drama By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.
“Lynn Nottage is one of the most original voices in the American theatre today,” said Everyman Theatre’s Artistic Director Vincent Lancisi. “Ruined is a play about the power of the human spirit and the will to survive. There’s a reason it won the Pulitzer Prize; it’s an extraordinary work of theatre.”
Based on several trips to Africa and numerous face-to-face interviews conducted by Nottage, the eye-opening production transports the audience into a make-shift bar in Congo where the shrewd and savvy matriarch-turned-businesswoman, Mama Nadi (Dawn Ursula), struggles to hold on to her one safe refuge – a brothel – as the world around her disintegrates into war with women’s bodies too often serving as the battleground.
Adorned in rich African colors by the production’s costume designer David Burdick, Mama Nadi presides over her brightly ornamented nightclub like a no-nonsense den mother who is not about to let sympathy for her staff interfere with her balance sheet. These young women have been through hell, but to her, that is only more reason they should be grateful for the shelter and sustenance she provides.
This holds especially true for the two new girls she has taken in at the urging of Christian (Jason B. McIntosh), an affable traveling salesman who brings supplies when he can get past the teens with assault rifles demanding tolls on the main road. Salima (Monique Ingram) is a bit on the ordinary side and projects a sourpuss disposition that is not likely to rouse the regulars. And, Sophie (Zurin Villanueva), though appreciably brighter and prettier, is of even more limited use: she is “ruined,” after being horrifically raped by a bayonet and left for dead.
“Look, militia did ungodly things to the child,” Christian informs Mama. The 18-year-old Sophie, who he reveals is his niece, has lingering physical and emotional discomfort evident in every movement and glance. Bribing the petulant proprietress with Belgian chocolate and red lipstick, Christian eventually gets her to begrudgingly accept his sister’s only child as part of a package deal.
Auspiciously, Mama takes a predilection to the wounded beauty who pays her way through Mama’s employ by singing (and bookkeeping). Zurin Villanueva as Sophie, who performs for the theatre’s spectators as much as for the patrons in Mama’s bar, has an exquisite, bell-like vocals that harmonizes the room and illuminates her up from the inside out. The beauty of her voice, ringing in a place of such spiritual and physical impoverishment, is a tender and awe-inspiring contradiction and counterpoint to their plight. Villanueva’s musical performances also lets the audience—and the characters—take a requisite respite from the viciousness of the action, giving viewers a chance to breath, to think and to contemplate how a sound so beautiful could come from a situation so untenable. And, as the plot stirs, thickens and unfolds, Mama and Sophie are revealed to have more in common than either could comfortably admit.
Concentrating on the women not as generalized victims but as individual survivors, with specific histories, longings, strengths and shortcomings, Tazewell Thompson’s invigorating production, aided by Cedric D. Lyles’ all-embracing music and Brandon McNeel’s energetic set, deftly depicts Mama Nadi’s bar as a kitschy refuge from the horrors of war. And, Dawn Ursula brilliantly captures and showcases all of Mama Nadi’s virtues with great range and skill: her arrogance and pride, her quick-wittedness and business acumen and her maternal protectiveness towards her stable of girls.
Likewise, Zurin Villanueva’s vulnerable Sophie, Monique Ingram’s defiant Salima, Jade Wheeler’s hardened Josephine and Jason B. McIntosh’s congenial Christian are all superb. Also notable are Bueka Uwemedimo as Fortune, the farmer turned reluctant soldier who yearns to reconcile with his wife, and Bruce Randolph Nelson as Mr. Harari, a well-intentioned diamond merchant who capably circumnavigates the treacherous terrain.
Transfixing, thrilling and intermittently tormenting, Everyman’s Ruined is ferociously gripping from start to finish, creating poetry out of brutality and humor and optimism out of tragedy inventively interlaced with unexpected twists and turns; it is a riveting theatrical tour de force deserving of its Pulitzer Prize status.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission.