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The strongest moments in Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed are the smallest ones: when a teenager tries to explain what Liberian civil-war combatants did to her family, only to have the words dry up; when a peace activist’s irrational, intimately personal hope dies suddenly, shockingly, as you watch. Ayesha Ngaujah and Dawn Ursula, respectively, create those moments with an economy that isn’t always on display elsewhere in Liesl Tommy’s staging, and it’s that actorly understatement that hits hardest in a drama that has its share of shocks.
Less brisk, and structurally less ambitious, than In the Continuum (the bifurcated wonder of a one-act that brought Gurira to the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in 2006), the two-act Eclipsed settles admirably into the living quarters of the three women who are its chief concern. If it settles less thoroughly into the specifics of who they are, that’s perhaps because it’s also intrigued by how those women claim and exert power among themselves and how those dynamics are exploded when the male-dominated frame around them crumbles.
Ngaujah plays No. 4—the shell-shocked, often silent new Wife No. 4, that is, to a Liberian rebel commander in a rural encampment, circa 2003. The man never appears onstage, though his influence is felt: From time to time, at some signal we don’t see, No. 4 and her sister-wives assemble in a kind of lineup, and after a moment one will step forward, then disappear into the wings to tend to whatever urge has stirred their husband.
No. 3 (Liz Femi Wilson) is young and pregnant and silly, No. 1 (Uzo Aduba) earthy and older and savvy. All three of them—like the absent No. 2—were abducted by the rebel LURD Army, stolen from their homes and their families and taken as “wives” by the faction’s leader. They call one another by their numbers, mostly, and they squabble amiably and comb each other’s hair and giggle over the book that only No. 4 can read. (A biography of Bill Clinton, of all things, with all the ironic lessons it offers about women and power.) And at some level they’ve learned to be proud of their status as the big man’s wives; the other option, as one of them notes in a moment of crisis, is the next compound over, where the women belong to all the soldiers in the camp.
There is one other alternative, it turns out: the path taken by No. 2 (Jessica Frances Dukes), who turns up midway through the first act, decked out in spangled jeans and a tank top, with an AK-47 slung over her bare shoulders. She’s become one of the civil war’s women soldiers, a fighter who’s seized the one kind of power everyone understands in a world whose one constant is uncertainty. The uncertainty of her own position, of course, will become clear later on, but for a while she’s a dazzling figure—and a dangerously alluring role model for the struggling No. 4.
The play’s other outside influence is the aforementioned peace activist, who represents the opposite pole. Her authority is rooted in her success as a businesswoman and in her considerable bravery: She and her peacemaker colleagues come to the camps to talk the rebel commanders down, insisting that they think of their country, of its mothers and its children, and as the disruption of a peace accord looms, she, too, offers an escape route to Gurira’s small family of wives: an education and a chance at a future.
Only a chance, though, not a certainty, and Eclipsed generates a certain drama with the question of whether Rita’s influence and No. 1’s wisdom can steer the younger wives in the direction of that chance, or whether they’ll let fear and uncertainty bind them to the familiar, dangerous as it is. Stirring and sobering, and funnier than you’d expect, Eclipsed ultimately has plenty in common with that earlier play of Gurira’s: It’s a deeply felt portrait of women in extremis, finding and testing their own strength.