The prize-winning Ruined, now playing at Sarasota's Studio Theatre makes the Pulitzer committee look good

Lynn Nottage's Ruined, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is that rare thing among American plays, an intelligent and passionate examination of personal and political life in a foreign country, in this case the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo. The many characters Nottage puts on the stage, from bar-and-brothelkeeper Mama Nadi to prostitute Josephine to army commander Osembenga, are motivated not by the usual family troubles or search for authenticity but by brutal civil war, rampant misogyny, desperation to survive and terrible memories of horrific violence. In the brilliantly acted and directed production currently playing at Sarasota's Florida Studio Theatre, Nottage's vision of a nation in extremis is rendered with an astonishing and sometimes frightening verisimilitude.

Surely this is How It Is: normal men and women turned into killers and rapists, exploiters and exploited, the walking wounded and the walking dead. Nottage is so successful at presenting the horrors of this state of affairs, in fact, that a couple of more pleasant notes in the play's second act ring false. But these moments are few; for the most part Nottage gives us a vision of hell, and what it's like to subsist on sulfur and brimstone. It's damned hard, is the answer, and it takes courage, shrewdness, vast willpower and a lot of luck. More than a lot, if you have the bad luck to be a woman.

And women are at the center of this play's vision. Most prominently, there's Mama Nadi, whom Nottage based on Brecht's Mother Courage, and who tries to hold off the forces of evil by providing drinks to them, and music and girls. Like Mother Courage, Mama Nadi is a war profiteer, but whereas Brecht's capitalist loved her children, Mama Nadi sends her prostitutes into the hands of sadists and butchers without any more compunction than if she were asking them to fetch a glass of water. The one girl whom she can't prostitute is Sophie, who was physically mutilated by a militia man — and is therefore "ruined," not capable of having sex. But Mama Nadi can still use Sophie as a server and a singer, and anyway, she has Salima and Josephine with whom to slake the endless lust of army men and rebels.

Not that Salima isn't a troublemaker: after all, she still wants to return to the husband who spurned her after she was repeatedly raped, and to make matters worse, she's pregnant with some "monster's" child. And even Sophie isn't as accommodating as she seems: secretly she's putting aside money, with which she hopes one day to pay for an operation that will mend her where she's "broken." As soldiers on both sides of the civil war come and go, as perpetrators of endless atrocities stop by for a game of pool and a beer, Mama Nadi and her three girls try to entertain them and to keep alive. It's not clear, in this tortured setting, that any of them will last another day. Not even Mama — an expert at bluster, the appearance of fearlessness — can be sure to outwit the unpredictable forces of hate.

If all of this comes across so vividly in the FST production, credit must go to director Richard Hopkins and to one of the most consistently talented casts I've ever seen. Alice M. Gatling as morally ambiguous Mama Nadi is superb from first moment to last, but so are Bianca Sams as sad-eyed Sophie and Stephanie Weeks as quietly rebellious Salima. As Josephine, the only one of the prostitutes mostly resigned to her function, Ashley Bryant is spectacular, and as Christian, the middle-aged man who provides Mama with merchandise and unreturned affection, Stanley Wayne Mathis is warm and winning. Then there are the warriors, all of them splendidly acted: Lawrence Evans as Osembenga, Freddie Bennett as Kisembe, and Khalil Muhammad as Salima's husband Fortune. Bob Phillips' set is vividly realistic, and Nicole Wee's perfect costumes suggest many Africas in one. There's also rousing music, provided by Kelvyn Bell on guitar and Julian Christian on drums. Actress Sams has a lovely voice, with which she entertains Mama's guests and us.

The play isn't flawless: it lacks a central plot, and in act two, one character has a change of heart that's not the least bit believable. Still, this is a formidable work unlike any other American drama I can think of. It makes most other plays look parochial. It makes Mother Courage look bloodless. It makes the Pulitzer committee look good.

And it makes its distant subject seem all too real.

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