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Stage Review

Making the political personal

‘Ruined’ offers tale of war crimes against women

Zainab Jah, Carla Duren, and Pascale Armand in Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined.’’ Zainab Jah, Carla Duren, and Pascale Armand in Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined.’’ (Kevin Berne)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / January 14, 2011

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Two young women listen, enraptured, while a third woman reads a scene from a romance novel that recounts, in breathless detail, the heroine’s first kiss from the man she presumably adores.

This seemingly ordinary tableau of innocence has an aching poignancy in Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined.’’ If the women are hanging on every swoony word, it’s because the love story contrasts so starkly with the brutal reality of their lives, past and present.

The escape it offers will prove all too temporary. Seldom have the consequences of male violence against women — in particular, the act of rape as a deliberate weapon of war, which has characterized recent conflicts from Bosnia to Colombia to Chechnya to Iraq — been dramatized with more searing immediacy than in “Ruined.’’

In a new Huntington Theatre Company production, director Liesl Tommy brings Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning play to jolting life with kinetic staging that maximizes the visceral impact of “Ruined.’’

But the director also shows sensitivity in handling quiet interludes (like the one described above) and the play’s flashes of humor. In this, she remains true both to Nottage’s compassion for her characters and to her determination that they be understood as more than just victims. Across the board, Tommy has drawn fully committed performances from the superb Huntington cast, especially Tonye Patano, Oberon K.A. Adjepong, Carla Duren, Zainab Jah, and Pascale Armand.

For the women of “Ruined,’’ trapped in the middle of a civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, survival is not just day-to-day but moment-to-moment. The ultimate survivor is the canny Mama Nadi (Patano), who employs Sophie (Duren), Salima (Armand), and Josephine (Jah) in the combination bar and brothel she runs in a small mining town.

Mama, a no-nonsense businesswoman, practices her own individual brand of realpolitik. Of the civil war, she says: “Who will win? Who cares?’’ All she cares about, ostensibly at least, is money, and that means she will keep providing “beer and distractions’’ to whoever comes into her establishment.

As Mama faces one crisis after another, Patano plays her with the brazen, outsize vigor of a woman who has constructed not just a livelihood but an identity — and she doesn’t intend to let anyone jeopardize either. “I didn’t come to here as Mama Nadi,’’ she angrily informs Christian (Adjepong), the good-hearted salesman who is struggling to win her affection. “I found her the same way miners find their wealth in the muck.’’

Mama’s customers do include some of the miners who dig for a mineral used in cellphones and laptops. (“Ruined’’ contains pointed reminders that the worldwide demand for the Congo’s natural resources helped intensify the armed conflict of the past two decades.) But it’s the rebels and government soldiers who (separately) patronize Mama’s establishment who pose a challenge — make that a threat — to Mama and her employees. Each side demands fealty to its cause, and each side treats Sophie, Salima, and Josephine with a callous cruelty that adds to the traumas all three have experienced.

Before they arrived at Mama’s, the women had all been the subject of repeated rapes. Salima had been held captive by rebels for five months, tied to a tree, while Josephine’s status as the daughter of a village chief had not protected her from marauding soldiers. As for Sophie, she had been raped to the point of mutilation, a fact that Duren communicates with a stiff-legged walk. “While I’m singing, I’m praying the pain will be gone, but what those men did to me lives inside of my body,’’ Sophie says, in words that clearly speak for all three women.

Yet there somehow remains an undimmed spark within Sophie — a sense that this young woman might eventually find her way to a kind of healing — that Duren conveys in quiet, subtle ways. Jah captures the anger beneath Josephine’s preening, especially in the second act, when the rage she dares not express verbally to the soldiers pours out in a spasmodic dance before a group of them.

As Salima, Armand turns in a performance so powerful, so heartbreaking, that the bleak question Salima asks early in the second act echoes beyond the theater, even though “Ruined’’ ends on a hopeful note. It seems to be the question, both simple and far-reaching, that Nottage is asking, too: “How can men be this way?’’

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

RUINED

Play by Lynn Nottage

Directed by: Liesl Tommy. Sets, Clint Ramos. Lights, Lap Chi Chu. Costumes, Kathleen Geldard. Original music, sound design, and music direction, Broken Chord. Choreography, Randy Duncan.

At: Huntington Theatre Company, Boston University Theatre, through Feb. 6. Tickets: $25-$89. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org