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Editorial Review

Theater review of ‘Ruined’ at Arena Stage

By Peter Marks
Monday, May 2, 2011

The story of Arena Stage’s rebirth is beginning to feel like a cliffhanger: When in a season of such creative uplift might the company finally come back down to earth? Well, on the evidence of its ferocious new production of “Ruined,” no one should count on that happening anytime soon.

Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning drama, set in a Congolese bar in the middle of a civil war, achieves a shattering intensity in director Charles Randolph-Wright’s guidance of the play’s 23 actors and musicians. Among the definitive assets are the star turns by Jenny Jules and Rachael Holmes as, respectively, a rage-filled African madam and the barbarically ravaged young woman who comes to live under her protection.

“Ruined” portrays the life force that pulsates even on the precipice of terror. Jules’s stylish Mama Nadi — dressed in sultry African colors by the production’s costume designer, the gifted “Project Runway” runner-up Emilio Sosa — presides over her full-service brothel, offering whiskey and women to any fighter who agrees to check his weapons at the door. Reflecting the unfathomable chaos of the conflict, various soldiers and rebels wander in and out, staking out nothing close to decipherable ideologies. It’s a hell of the most random sort.

Mama Nadi passes among her customers, desperately trying to maintain the illusion of civility. One of the many marvels of Jules’s performance is the way she allows the character’s hardness to charm us: Mama Nadi keeps her business afloat through guile and the audience on her side by grudgingly clinging to her humanity. “I open my doors and tomorrow I’m a refugee camp!” she protests, and minutes later, she is accepting under her roof both Holmes’s Sophie and Donnetta Lavinia Grays’s Salima, two women defiled savagely and as a result cast out by their villages.

The singularly horrific nature of Sophie’s scars gives the play its title, and in Holmes, the production finds its splendid heart. Seen locally over the past year in plays by Shakespeare and the contemporary dramatist Tarell Alvin McCraney, Holmes has shown herself capable of range. But those performances do not prepare you for the manner in which she melts into her tender “Ruined” character, a girl every father wants to avenge and every mother seeks to console. (Her renditions of Sophie’s songs, performed club-style for the leering soldiers, provide a joyous counterpoint to her plight.)

The hitch, of course, is that Mama Nadi is no saint. She gives the girls to the ravenous military men, rationalizing that prostitution is preferable to the fate that would await them in the outside world. So ruination in her mind is interchangeable with salvation.

Nottage clearly sympathizes with Mama, for while at times “Ruined” seems to be Sophie’s story, the play ultimately — and with a tinge of facile sentimentality — turns on how Mama is changed by the courageous people around her. They include not only Sophie but also the steadfast Christian (a deeply appealing Jeremiah W. Birkett), a traveling salesman whose weaknesses are drink and an abiding belief that he and Mama Nadi belong together.

Randolph-Wright has the assignment of transforming the piece into an in-the-round experience on the Fichandler Stage; it originated on a more traditional proscenium stage, off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club. For the most part, the production fills the space satisfyingly. Set designer Alexander V. Nichols keeps it simple, deploying a few wooden tables in bright colors; lighting designer Michael Gilliam contributes atmosphere by creating, for example, the shadows of a slatted ceiling on the floor.

Only when voices are raised and African accents grow a little slushy are some cracks revealed in “Ruined’s” polish. The need for scrupulous vocal crispness is even more urgent when actors are required to express themselves in 360 degrees.

Otherwise, Arena’s production is as solid as and at times even an improvement on the 2009 New York original. Grays and Jamairais Malone give fine accounts of the women of wildly divergent temperaments who room with Sophie in Mama’s brothel. The actors portraying the assorted fighting men capably whip the proceedings up into near-violent frenzies. But the more exquisite type of tension developed by Jules’s Mama and Holmes’s Sophie is what elevates this version most forcibly.

Of all the interesting theater Arena is creating in this year, in which it has returned to its Southwest Washington home, “Ruined” may be the play that connects in the warmest ways with the company’s roots. The work’s international flavor and the cohesiveness of the ensemble remind you of the values of Arena’s founding artistic director, Zelda Fichandler. You’d like to think that she thinks so, too.

By Lynn Nottage. Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright. Original music and sound, Lindsay Jones; music coordinator, Mongezi Chris Ntaka; fight director, Robb Hunter; dialect coach, Kim James Bey. With Lawrence Redmond, Daniel Ssuuna, David Foreman, Waldo Robertson, Psalmayene 24, Clifton Duncan, Babs Olusanmokun, JaBen A. Early, James J. Johnson. About 2½ hours.

Playwright Lynn Nottage startles audiences

By Celia Wren
Friday, April 22, 2011

The Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Ruined,” now at Arena Stage, burst into public view in 2008, a distillation of war, travel, massive suffering and some smiles that, to writer Lynn Nottage, were a revelation. The acclaimed playwright has vivid memories of interviewing refugees during her research for the play, which tells of a bar-and-brothel in the violence-scarred contemporary Democratic Republic of Congo.

Congo has long been wracked by a dizzyingly complex armed conflict that has unleashed a pandemic of rape. Several years ago, Nottage traveled to Africa to hear from women who had experienced the crisis firsthand. The dramatist, a 2007 winner of a MacArthur Fellowship (the honor sometimes termed a “genius grant”), recalls that she wanted “to examine the way in which war impacts women and to look at gender-specific human rights abuses. Because that’s one of the things I find is always lacking in examination of war: the impact it has on women and children.”

She was hoping to fold the material into a planned reworking of Bertolt Brecht’s classic “Mother Courage and Her Children,” but that idea receded as she learned more specifics about Congo.

Her interviewees astonished her, she said.

“These women that I encountered had been through some of the most horrific things that you can possibly imagine,” she says. “[Yet] they managed to resurrect their lives and access their smiles.” Nottage — who would ultimately make three research trips to Africa — realized that her planned play would have to do justice to the continent’s intricacy and nuance.

A cut-and-dried war-is-hell script “would be the easy, simple play to write,” she says. “You show the horror, and then you end it. I felt the challenge was figuring out a way to show the full complexity of life in Africa, which is this dance between people living their lives and then suddenly being thrust into these untenable situations, and then figuring out a way to live again.”

Public opinion seems to hold that Nottage mastered the challenge with “Ruined,” which debuted in Chicago and New York, received critical raves and nabbed the Pulitzer in 2009. The dramatist’s success in this instance is, perhaps, not surprising, because complexity — the quality she was striving for in “Ruined” — characterizes her artistic output.

The 46-year-old writer, who is one of Arena Stage’s “project resident” dramatists (commissioned to write a script that the company will produce), sets her plays in vastly different eras and milieus and tailors her aesthetic to each project. For instance, the widely performed “Intimate Apparel” (2003)m which was co-premiered by Baltimore’s Center Stage and California’s South Coast Repertory, tells a quiet, bittersweet story about an African American seamstress in 1905 New York City. But a companion piece, 2004’s “Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine,” is an antic satire about a public relations professional in modern Manhattan.

“Crumbs from the Table of Joy” (1995) travels to 1950s Brooklyn to portray an African American family influenced by communism and by the religious leader Father Divine. “Por’knockers” (1995) is a political satire partly set in the Guyana rain forest. “Las Meninas” (2002) recounts a surreptitious romance between an African dwarf and the wife of King Louis XIV of France.

“She has an extraordinary vision, and has done a lot of different things,” says Charles Randolph-Wright, who is directing Arena’s production of “Ruined,” scheduled to open Thursday. He points out that the play is a complex, chromatic mixture of epiphanies and moods. “There’s humor in the play. There’s joy in the play. There’s music,” he says.

“She writes plays about amazing topics, and each one is totally different,” marvels Carole Rothman, artistic director of New York’s Second Stage Theatre, which is debuting Nottage’s latest work: the screwball-comedy-inspired “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” about the showbiz aspirations, and subsequent controversial career, of an African American woman who works as a maid in 1930s Hollywood. The play is in previews, with a scheduled opening May 9.

Kate Whoriskey, a director who mounted the world premieres of “Ruined,” “Intimate Apparel” and “Fabulation,” also sees variety as a hallmark of the writer’s achievements. “She has more range than other playwrights, and she has the ability to be very specific,” so that “the material she’s writing about finds the style,” Whoriskey says.

Chatting about her work in early April, Nottage observed that a conceptual through-line links her distinctive scripts. “My plays are stylistically different yet thematically similar,” she said, in the considered tone of someone who had been queried on the topic before. “What ties them all together is, by and large, women from the African diaspora, women who, in some regards, are marginalized by the culture at large.”

The Brooklyn resident had arrived for the interview, at the midtown Manhattan offices of Second Stage, toting a heavy bag. Life had been hectic that morning in the brownstone she shares with her filmmaker husband, her two children, ages 2 and 13, and her father, and she hadn’t figured out how to silence the ringer on her new BlackBerry.

Still, she exuded an air of calm and concentration, a mind-set she would no doubt need in the countdown to the first performance of “Vera Stark,” that evening.

The new Tinseltown-themed piece, she says, was written at the same time as “Ruined” and was, initially, a means of giving herself a break from the emotionally grueling Congo tale.

“It was a fun release,” she says, although she notes that “Vera Stark” subsequently gathered its own seriousness and momentum.

She based “Vera Stark” partly on the careers of lesser-known African American actresses such as Theresa Harris. So this new play, too, exemplifies Nottage’s passion for writing about women of African heritage or descent, an interest she traces back to her relationship with her mother, who could be reticent about family history.

“I knew that there was a great deal of depth and life that was sitting just beyond my mother’s gaze,” the playwright remembers, adding that because her mother died relatively young, “I was never able to fully ask her all the questions that I wanted to ask her. And the same is true of my grandmother. I feel as though my journey as a writer is a hunt to understand them as women.”

Nottage’s parents were lovers of the arts, and growing up in Brooklyn — in the house she now lives in — she regularly attended plays, including shows by New York’s storied Negro Ensemble Company. She studied English and American literature and creative writing at Brown University, and later enrolled in the graduate playwriting program at the Yale School of Drama.

After Yale, she did not dive into the theater world. Instead, she took a job in the national press office of Amnesty International.

“In many ways, I consider those to be my formative years,” she says, “because when you’re in school, you have a distant relationship to the world, in that most of what you’re learning is from books and lectures. But at Amnesty, I came face to face with realities in a very direct and harsh way.”

The job was exciting but stressful. “There’s never any ebb in human misery,” she reflects.

After four years, she quit and concentrated on writing. In 1992, she contributed a short piece to “A . . . My Name Is Still Alice,” a musical revue produced at Second Stage. Her selection, titled “Ida Mae Cole Takes a Stance,” was “very brave, very bold and very funny,” Second Stage’s Rothman recalls. Impressed, Rothman and her colleagues commissioned a full-length play from Nottage, and when the script came in, “Crumbs from the Table of Joy,” they produced it.

Nearly 20 years on, that gesture of confidence has paid off again with “Vera Stark,” which, Rothman says, “does what theater is supposed to do: startle you and take you different places.”

Nottage’s writing career — and, since the Pulitzer win, her travel and public appearance schedule — have kept her pretty busy. Asked whether she has any hobbies, she jokes, “My hobby is raising my children.” But she admits that she scrapes together time, when necessary, to tend the tea roses and other plants in the family garden.

And she hasn’t been too busy to ponder a new script she’ll undertake for her Arena Stage’s residency. Topping her wish list for the project: an RV. She’d like to travel around the country in the vehicle, gathering the stories of people who are struggling to cope with 21st-century economic realities.

“I want to know what is happening in America,” she says.