Ruined at the Geffen tells a Tale of War, Survival and Hope – It’s full of Life

Sep 23, 2010 by Lisa Newton

It isn’t often that I cry with sadness, jump out of my seat with shock, and laugh all in one evening, but that’s exactly what happened when I saw the Geffen Playhouse’s stage transform into a Congo brothel, through its compelling and riveting play entitled, Ruined, which is currently running at the Geffen Playhouse until its closing performance date of October 15, 2010.

The play is set amongst the devastation of war which raged and still rages in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The long and brutal conflict in the Congo has caused massive suffering for civilians, with estimates of millions dead either directly or indirectly as a result of the fighting.

It’s a story that’s as old as time—the struggle to survive. And in the case of Ruined, the struggle women go through during a war– any war for that matter, is particularly cruel and inhumane.

A co-production between the Geffen Playhouse and Seattle’s Intiman Theatre, Ruined is the most acclaimed play of 2009 garnering best play honors with a Lucille Lortel Award, Obie Award, New York Drama Critics Award, Drama Desk Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, and the inaugural Horton Foote Prize for Outstanding New American Play, in addition to the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Ruined has Mama Nadi, played by Portia, struggling to keep her business, a rundown nightclub where all the locals come to have a good time, open and profitable. Having the only pool table within 50 kilometers, Mama Nadi has no trouble filling her “house.”

As part of her “motherly” duties, Mama Nadi takes in girls who have nowhere else to go. As in all wars, women are the true victims—the loss of their husbands, children, and as the matriarch of their family’s that are destroyed, they lose themselves and their identity, by the brutality and horrors of men who suddenly think they are Gods.

Indeed, the film’s title is no accident. Ruined was five years in the making, with the original basis of the play planned around playwright Bertolt Brecht’s anti-war drama Mother Courage and her Children.

But Ruined’s writer Lynn Nottage, and its director Kate Whoriskey, discovered that not only were women and children being used as tools of war through mass rapes and sexual violence in the Congo; when they traveled to other African war ravaged nations including Sudan, Somalia, and Uganda interviewing many of the affected women refugees, they decided that another tale had to be told about what is happening now.

What became obvious to Nottage and Whoriskey, is that the women victims wanted to get their stories told, as well as their desire to have as many people as possible to know what’s happening in these war-torn nations as that’s what’s needed for intervention—their stories are the catalyst to reach the rest of the world, which set in motion the “proudly provocative” plays for the Geffen Playhouse’s 2010/2011 season.

Ruined’s opening scene finds Mama Nadi humorously conversing with Christian, played by Russell G. Jones, a merchant who brings needed supplies to Mama Nadi. But, on this day, he also brings two girls, Sophie, played by Condola Rashad, and his niece, Salima, played by Quincy Tyler Berstine.

As the drama unfolds, one wonders if Mama Nadi truly wants to help the girls or if they are just a means to an end. A staunch business woman, who always keeps her eye on her establishment’s bottom line, Mama Nadi keeps the audience guessing until the end about her true motivations. Perhaps it’s a combination of both—a means to an end; and her ability to keep the girls ensconced within the walls of Mama Nadi’s “house,” and the ominous, ever-present danger outside her always open door.

For the next two hours, the audience is transfixed as the stage and set have managed to bring the war and all the trials and tribulations that that entails–brutal soldiers, gunfire, hunger, but most of all fear–fear of living and fear of dying, to the Geffen Playhouse’s stage.

In the end, after all the devastation, hope prevails. Ruined at many moments, isn’t a happy play; and I felt sorry for the few people who left during intermission. For them, they only saw the sadness, but missed the struggles, the challenges, the will to live, and the heart behind the characters.

And indeed, the characters and intricate story are marvelously portrayed by this wonderful cast. Their portrayal of the main protagonists and characters, lead the viewers into the both the powerful story and its harsh realities.

I understand why, even in these economic times, people go to the theater and want to feel good; but the reasons are obvious as to why the acclaimed drama Ruined is such a critical success–it’s that in spite of the horrors that Nottage depicts, there’s an undeniable spirit of hope that emerges:

Ruined is Full of Life.

For more information about the different organizations involved in working with, assisting, and spreading the word about the Congo and other wars, the Geffen has assembled a series of Talk Back Tuesdays and International Groups to interact with its patrons.

For more information about these initiatives at the Geffen Playhouse click here.

For tickets, dates, prices, this year’s season, and other information contact the Geffen Playhouse.

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