… This house is a home …

Ruined brings us to a cafe-bar-whorehouse in the Congo, an oasis in the midst of war between “government” and “rebels”.  As in Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage, on which this play is loosely based, it doesn’t matter who’s fighting — the effect on the little people struggling to survive is the same no matter which violent-prone combatants they encounter and will be the same no matter who wins.

Mama Nadi runs her place and her prostitutes with a firm hand.  She’s an unsentimental, bottom-line realist, using as whores the girls who are victims of sexual exploitation — mass and ongoing rapes — by soldiers, and then expelled by their kin as dishonored.  She offers them a place and a living.  Most of the time they keep in mind that they have no choice and are grateful — but thoughts of sweeter and more decent possibilities sometimes overwhelm them.  It’s a brutal story, and a real one in the sense of being based on the playwright’s interviews with victimized Congo women.

The play thus tells an important story, and has well written and acted confrontations between determined characters.

BUT … A problem is that Mama Nadi’s seems too nice a place.  In between the terrible things that happen in front of your eyes, you begin to feel that — like the girls — you could do worse than be here.  In Mother Courage everybody’s so hungry, the last time I saw it I came out hungry — oh for some warm soup!  Mama provides food and shelter, in critically short supply in Brecht’s play.  She and her girls, and the repeat visitors form a family, like the denizens of O’Neill’s bar in The Iceman Cometh.  Mama’s strength, conveyed with an all embracing vitality by Saidah Arrika Ekulona, is reassuring.  The set is lit by a golden gleam, reflecting off the piano-polished stage floor.  Everything’s in good repair — the ramshackle bar is painted over in pretty pastels.  The play takes up violence in terms of war, gender, and conventions of honor, but until violence directly intrudes, Mama’s place seems benign.  AIDS and other STD’s, in this play about prostitutes and soldiers in Africa, are never mentioned.  None of the girls is on drugs and none is alcoholic.  If war didn’t intrude here, what would happen to these girls anyway in ten years?  Ruined doesn’t ask that.

Thus, in spite of horrific events, the overall mood is so upbeat the play is ultimately sentimental.  In this it differs mightily from Journeys, recently produced in NYC and reviewed by me here, which like Ruined tells violence-plagued stories of women from around the world based on interviews, without the rosy glow.  Ruined lets the audience leave with one of Brecht’s “happy endings, nice and easy” — without the irony.  Brecht doesn’t paint in pastel colors.

Ruined, however, draws dramatic strength from its fully drawn and realized characters and fine cast.  The play shines a light on the worst aspects of humanity, on much in between, and also on the best, particularly in the character of Christian, a purveyor of goods who loves Mama Nadi, and whose poetic and persistent character is beautifully played by Russell G. Jones.  The three girls we follow (we never see hide nor hair of the seven or eight others who are said to be there which is a real flaw in this play) have distinct personalities and their stories are moving and emblematic:  Condola Rashad as the sensitive, maimed Sophie, Quincy Tyler Bernstine as Salina who must forget the past, and Cherise Booth who … don’t miss her dancing!

Ruined is easier to take than it should be  — perversely it turns out to be a pleasant evening of theater.

Ruined plays at NY City Center Stage 1 in midtown Manhattan, through April 19th, 2009.