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It takes a while for the terror to creep in. A while after you’ve settled into your seat in the Fichandler, a while after you’ve absorbed the comfortably shabby vibe of the backwater saloon that’s the setting of Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, a while after you’ve met proprietor Mama Nadi and made the acquaintance of one of the maybe-shady characters who help keep her check-your-weapons establishment supplied with hooch and cigarettes. It takes a while because even though this is the Congo, where conflict is written between the lines of even casual exchanges, Mama Nadi’s is a kind of sanctuary, the place locals go to forget the endless clash for the length of a longneck or the time it takes for a tumble with one of Mama’s girls.
But terror does come, and when it does it’s not in the guise of a stranger—that’s how civil war and genocide work. The men who keep Mama Nadi in business are the men responsible, directly or indirectly, for the brutalities that make her girls feel grateful for the shelter of a whorehouse; when it comes to a choice, will their friendship last any longer than the lager?
Nottage’s play is a little dialogue heavy, and at times it feels like it’s wrestling with the burden of explaining why the civil strife in the DRC was so intractable and so seemingly random. (Rare minerals, tribal hatreds, external peculations—all infuriatingly familiar, if you’ve paid any attention to the legacies of colonialism in Africa, and yet they intertwine in singularly deadly ways here.) In the Fichandler’s in-the-round space, the passions in play lead some of the cast to push a bit, and between the shouting and the accents, some passages get a little muddy.
Not the most critical ones, though. There are achingly sad arcs for the characters whose tales make up the backbone of Nottage’s sturdily traditional story—a pair of women displaced by the war, one of them a survivor of gang rape and worse, the other violated so unspeakably that her ordeal can only be summarized with the single word of the title—and between them Donnetta Lavinia Grays and Rachael Holmes make shattering, soulful arias of their speeches, their silences, and (in Holmes’ case) their songs. Jenny Jules’ fierce, flashy Mama Nadi is mesmerizing, too—courage personified, for better and for worse, in a place where that quality can easily be as much vice as virtue.