I had seen the New York production of Lynn Nottage's RUINED (imported from the Goodman Theatre in Chicago) and found the production limp and the lead character miscast, or at least not up to her role. This had been a disappointment because I loved the script and, as a member of the Pulitzer Prize drama jury, enthusiastically supported it for that prize. Was I mistaken about the script or was the production really weak? The current production of RUINED at the Almeida Theatre proved that with the right director and cast, RUINED is an intense, powerful experience.
In the midst of Civil War in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mama Nadi, an African Mother Courage, tries to avoid taking sides and maintain her business, a bar-brothel. The women who work for her all bear the scars of the war and are forced into prostitution. One has been "ruined" -- gang raped by soldier and outcast by her husband. Of course, Mama's attempt to keep both sides as happy customers is unsuccessful. Mama has a friend-admirer, the merchant Christian, and her employees are couragous women trying to make the best of their situation in a world of brutal men.
RUINED is the fruit of Nottage's research among women in the Congo, but the play is more tha a documentary. Her characters are vibrant and her theatrical language compleeing. This is the work of a master dramatist, one of the best America has produced in the best quarter century.
The production at the Almeida is perfect.Jenny Jules shows Mama Nadi's strength, but also her vulnerabiliy. Her grief in the final scene is almost too much to witness. The supporting cast is consistently strong, thanks to fine casting and the superb direction of Indhu Rabasingham. I particularly liked the revolving set that allowed for smooth scene transitions. One doesn't expect that kind of technology on the small Almeida stage. Mama's establishment looked like a good wind -- or a bad war -- could blow it away.
As close to a perfect production as I have seen in a long time. And the play deserved it.
RUINED by Lynn Nottage. Almeida Theatre. March 20, 2010.