Jenny Jules as Mama Nadi (left) and Rachael Holmes as Sophie… (Joan Marcus, Handout photo )
The audience peers in at the world of "Ruined" as if through the chinks of a boarded-up window.
Our eyes adjust gradually to the light inside Mama Nadi's brothel in the Belgian Congo. We notice that though the paint is chipped and worn, the furniture still contains traces of once-vibrant reds and peacock blues. (Alexander V. Nichols designed the evocative set.)
We notice that a prostitute so brutalized by soldiers that she walks with a limp still dresses in breezy chintzes that drape sinuously over her lovely limbs. (Esosa — reality television show fans know him as Emilio Sosa, "Project Runway's" season seven runner-up — designed the effortlessly beautiful costumes.)
In Mama's whorehouse, pleasure and heartbreak are not mutually exclusive, but have set up abodes side by side, like squabbling cousins from the same village.
"Ruined" is set during a period called the Great African War that began in 1998. But despite its grim theme of sexual violence against women, it didn't win the 2009 Pulitzer Prize by making viewers afraid to laugh.
And despite the drama's kinship to Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage and her Children," "Ruined" isn't afraid to charm ordinary theatergoers by infusing into the action African nightclub songs.
Playwright Lynn Nottage's show is receiving a riveting production at Arena Stage that is in turns funny, terrifying, hopeful and sad.
This is the first time "Ruined" has been staged in the round, and the seating arrangement has two salutatory results: Theatergoers are brought close to the action, and a perception is created that the characters on stage are surrounded and trapped.
The play begins when two new prostitutes are brought to the establishment: Salima, a wife and mother who was abducted from her home and passed around a military encampment, and Sophie, who was raped and mutilated with a bayonet — resulting in physical injuries that render her unfit, Mama fears, for work in a brothel.
The audience realizes quickly and uncomfortably that given the realities of life during wartime, a job in Mama's brothel is a stroke of good luck. But it's unclear how long the women's refuge will last, because Mama is playing a high-stakes balancing game in which she caters to soldiers on both sides of the conflict.
Nottage received her first big career break in 2003, when Center Stage mounted the world premiere of "Intimate Apparel" about an African-American seamstress in New York in the early 1900s. Though the plot of "Ruined" couldn't be more different, both shows display Nottage's nuanced characters and astute insights into human behavior.
Actress Jenny Jules sparkles so brightly as the charismatic, contradictory Mama Nadi that she creates her own spotlight.
Audience members keep changing their minds about the brothel keeper. She is mercenary one minute, and altruistic the next. She is both compassionate and callous. She gambles recklessly with her girls' lives, and will make any sacrifice to save them — and we can't stop watching her.
As Salima, Donnetta Lavinia Grays takes theatergoers on a bumpy emotional journey. It's Grays who delivers "Ruined's" most unforgettable monologue, and the actress wisely underplays the speech, letting Nottage's words do the work for her.
Actress Rachael Holmes who portrays Sophie, has both a pleasant singing voice (the character earns her keep as the brothel's chanteuse) and a subtle acting style. But Holmes tends to replace one conflicting emotion with another, instead of allowing both to co-exist simultaneously in her face.
As the brothel's veteran prostitute, Josephine, the impossibly long-legged actress Jamairais Malone not only dances beautifully, but shows us the pathos beneath her character's brassy façade.
And actor Jeremiah Birkett imbues Christian, Mama's supplier and tenacious suitor, with a trace of buoyancy that the audience by then desperately needs. Birkett conveys this resiliency in the lift of Christian's shoulders, by bouncing ever so slightly on the balls of his feet.
The final scene of "Ruined" may strike some audience members as absurdly optimistic and possibly untrue. It's as though the playwright couldn't bear to leave her ravaged women without any semblance of hope.
And to tell the truth, neither can we.
If you go
"Ruined" runs through June 5 at Arena Stage,1101 Sixth St. S.W., Washington. Tickets are $55. Show times vary. Call 202-488-3300 or go to arenastage.org.