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'Eclipsed' Catches Light in the Depths of Despair

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Is any situation more pitiable than the plight of the women of "Eclipsed"? Kidnapped by a Liberian warlord in the midst of some endless, inscrutable conflict, they are forced to live in a squalid shack as his concubines, lining up for a hideous sort of sex call anytime he desires half a minute of gratification.

As a subject for drama, this could have an audience pining for the exits very quickly. The wonder of Danai Gurira's new play, which is receiving its world premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, is that "Eclipsed" is neither depressingly bleak nor oppressively sober. It's a surprisingly vivacious portrait of helplessness, of the entirely human impulse to adapt, to get by even when there's little hope life will get better.

Gurira, born in the United States but raised in Zimbabwe, curls up into the souls of her female characters, a knack she demonstrated at Woolly three years ago with "In the Continuum," the piece she wrote and starred in with Nikkole Salter, about the intersecting lives of women with AIDS. (She also proved to be a radiant presence in the 2008 independent film "The Visitor.") She doesn't appear in this work, but her tight-knit kinship with these characters comes across as if she shared the stage with them. That's because Gurira gives us people under duress as opposed to mere victims under guard: flawed, caustic, funny women, capable of doing harm to each other as well as good.

The only serious objection to director Liesl Tommy's authentic-feeling production has to do with intelligibility. The five otherwise excellent actresses of "Eclipsed" speak their lines in a West African patois that garbles their consonants. Those with less precise approaches to diction seem at times to talk with marbles in their mouths. (Frustratingly, key words in an explanation of one character's origins seemed to get swallowed, which affected an understanding of a plot detail.)

That plot unfolds in 2003 around the multiple "wives" of an unseen rebel leader, in a camp of armed forces engaged in a civil war with Charles Taylor, then the Liberian president. Politics, though, plays absolutely no role in "Eclipsed": Such is the nature of this unaccountable struggle that the captive women seem to have no idea what the fighting is about. Apart from mechanical sexual encounters with the commanding officer -- a rag and water basin are kept in their corrugated-steel shanty, to cleanse themselves of the act -- they don't really have much idea of what they themselves are about.

As in Lynn Nottage's "Ruined," a drama about the denizens of a Congolese brothel, which won this year's Pulitzer Prize, "Eclipsed" chronicles in microcosm the special kinds of violence that war visits upon African women. The larger context of both plays, though, is another brutal reality, that women on the continent could still exist as the property of men, and that only by taking on male roles -- as a procurer in "Ruined" or an automatic-rifle-toting rebel in "Eclipsed" -- do the women perceive a chance at breaking free.

Daniel Ettinger's gritty, ramshackle set locates us in the stark environment of "Eclipsed," where the women, led by a headstrong chief wife (Uzo Aduba), call each other by the numbers that define their place in the pecking order. (At least one of them has forgotten her name.) While strident No. 2 (Jessica Frances Dukes) has joined the ranks of the soldiers, No. 3 (Liz Femi Wilson) sits miserably in the hut, cursing her pregnancy and trying to bully newly arrived No. 4 (Ayesha Ngaujah), the youngest and most impressionable of the group.

The linchpin characters are Aduba's appealingly brusque No. 1, who clings to her pathetic status, having lost the will to escape, and Ngaujah's childlike No. 4, who's torn between a desire for No. 1's maternal attention and No. 2's rebel proselytizing. (A peace worker and former member of Liberia's elite, played by Dawn Ursula, who's given humanitarian access to the camp, arrives to try to rescue them, or at least rekindle their spirit.)

Although there is a discussion-topic-of-the-week dimension to the story, Gurira's character-driven play is conveyed with a lovely authority, at times even a whimsicality. She demonstrates a generosity toward her characters even when she's having fun at their expense. In one of the play's neatest touches, the wives are entertained by the literacy of No. 4 and the discovery of a worn copy of a recently published book on an American leader. The book's subject will remain under wraps here, but let's just say that these unschooled women prove to be insightful students of sexual politics.

"Eclipsed" takes a few turns for expediency's sake: The ending is more abrupt than the evening's events might have supported. Then again, the cruelty and surrealistic nature of the women's trials conform to no rational rule book. And why does this have to be the end? It's entirely possible, given the intriguing intersection at which Gurira leaves us, that she and her characters still have a lot more to say.

Eclipsed, by Danai Gurira. Directed by Liesl Tommy. Lighting, Colin K. Bills; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; sound, Veronika Vorel; fight choreography, John Gurski; dialect coach, Tonya Beckman Ross; dramaturge, Miriam Weisfeld. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through Sept. 27 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Visit http://www.woollymammoth.net or call 202-393-3939.

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