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. Through June 5 at Arena Stage, 1011 Sixth St. SW. Visit www.arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.