OSF's 'Ruined' bears witness for victims of sexual violence

"Ruined" came to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival preceded by its reputation. Lynn Nottage's play about women who are victims of military violence in the Congo won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for drama — even stretching the award's boundaries in the process, since the Pulitzer guidelines say the prize is for plays "dealing with American life."

Nottage was moved when she visited Africa twice and interviewed victims of rape and genital mutilation. After the play was commissioned by Chicago's Goodman Theatre, where it had its premiere in 2008, she said that her challenge was to write a political play that wasn't too didactic.

Good idea. It is a commonplace that political plays don't often pack much punch (think of David Edgar's "Continental Divide" at OSF in 2003). But Nottage found a certain life force in the survivors she met, and she wanted to tell their story in a way that would be compelling to audiences.

The production of the play that opened Saturday night in the OSF's New Theatre, directed by Liesl Tommy, was only partially successful in this respect. Kimberly Scott, in a strong performance as the redoubtable Mama Nadi, who runs the best little whorehouse in a violence-ridden part of the Congo, portrays an indomitable survivor. For the young women in her employ, to be bargirls and prostitutes is an existential choice to carry on. The good life it's not, but it's better than the chaos and death outside Mama Nadi's doors.

One of the worst fates that can befall a third world country is to be found to have a valuable resource. This virtually guarantees foreign intervention, warfare, dictatorship, poverty and environmental destruction. The ongoing violence in the Congo — perhaps the world's deadliest since World War II — swirls around vast mineral deposits. Especially coltan, which is in our computer chips and cell phones.

The United Nations estimates that since 1998, 200,000 women have been raped in eastern Congo by government troops and various militias. Many of the victims have been mutilated with bayonets and other weapons, leaving them "ruined," or unfit to bear children or be wives or even prostitutes. Then they are shunned by their families and villages.

One such is Sophie (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), who is brought to Mama Nadi's bar/brothel by Christian (Tyrone Wilson, in a nuanced performance), a travelling salesman with a sweet spot for Mama Nadi. Sophie cringes and limps with the pain of her injuries, but she's bright, quick with numbers, and a singer. So Mama Nadi decides to keep her, along with Salima (Chinasa Ogbuagu), a young woman who was kidnapped and held in sexual slavery for five months by one of the neighborhood militias.

Mama Nadi's first rule is that firearms must be checked at the door. It's an attempt to keep her establishment a clean, well-lighted place of refuge from the horrors outside. Like Rick in "Casablanca," she positions herself as a cynic who doesn't take sides and who's in it for the money.

There's badinage, girlfriend joking. And Sophie and Salima quickly find an antagonist in one of Mama Nadi's girls, the spitfire Josephine (ably played by Victoria Ward). As the play proceeds episodically, the visits of the soldiers, both government troops and a rebel militia, become more and more menacing.

Will the death outside come in? Will Sophie survive? Will Salima's husband come for her? Does Mama Nadi have a heart?

"Ruined" owes a debt to Brecht's "Mother Courage," which gave Nottage a rough template. But while Brecht was writing an intellectual play designed to keep you at a distance, Nottage was writing a emotional play designed to pull you in.

Yet "Ruined" lacks zing. It never achieves the narrative momentum of Nottage's "Intimate Apparel" (produced at OSF in 2006) or the emotional charge of her "Crumbs from the Table of Joy," (OSF 2000) both of which burst with overflowing life. Sophie is written with surprisingly little depth. Whose story is this, anyway?

One has the feeling watching "Ruined" that this is what happens when you set out to write a play around a topical theme and make up characters and a situation to illustrate your ideas and start moving them around. They don't quite live. Compare with "Apparel" and "Crumbs," which seemed to spring deeply from characters whose stories grabbed you in the guts and demanded to be told.

"Ruined" will get a large audience, deservedly. But it is not the kind of play that challenges that audience.

It also is marred by a sappy ending. Nottage decided to leave us with an upbeat note. The problem is it doesn't fit, and we don't believe it anyway.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.

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