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Time Out Theater Review: "Ruined"

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One thing President Barack Obama's administration promises is a United States that is less insular and more connected to the world. We could use that in our theater, overly reliant on suburbs and dysfunctional middle-class families.

If Lynn Nottage's "Ruined" is any example, change has begun. It is an intense and gripping new drama set in the war-torn Congo, a far cry from our comfortable living rooms.

The main location is the bar and brothel of Mama Nadi, a no-nonsense African matriarch played by the fiery Saidah Arrika Ekulona. Mama Nadi keeps peace in her poor establishment between corrupt government troops and deadly rebel forces, both of whom want to control the lucrative mines of the area.

Caught between the soldiers are Mama's girls, pressed into prostitution even after enduring horrific rape and torture at the hands of men. "Ruined" refers to the condition the women are left in - various degrees of psychic and physical mutilation.

Although there are plenty of postcolonialist and feminist politics sprinkled throughout, Lynn Nottage wisely chooses to tell a crackling thriller, with humor, plot twists and lots of humanity. Although Mama's theatrical forebear is clearly Brecht's "Mother Courage," she's a more vulnerable, less didactic creation.

"Ruined" is the kind of new play we desperately need: well-informed and unafraid of the world's brutalities. The cast, under Kate Whoriskey's superb direction, is phenomenal, with stellar performances by Ekulona, Russell Gebert Jones as a traveling salesman who pines for Mama Nadi, Quincy Tyler Bernstine as a girl with a particularly horrifying past, and Cherise Boothe as the embittered and ambitious Josephine.

Lastly, the beautiful and riveting Condola Rashad makes her spectacular off-Broadway debut as Sophie, a ruined young woman who is heartbreaking yet hopeful, a beacon of life force in a hell on earth.

Those who expect the grim scenario of "Ruined" to come to a tragic end might be surprised by the twists that Nottage's story takes. Nottage is one of our finest playwrights, a smart, empathetic and daring storyteller who tells a story audience won't expect.

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