"Ruined" — on stage at Intiman through August 15 — is set in the Congo, in a jungle roadhouse whose proprietress, Mama Nadi, both exploits and protects a few of the countless women victimized by the region's relentless bush wars. The play tells of suffering, of power, and of gentleness. It strikes the right notes to win acclaim: playwright Lynn Nottage was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for "Ruined" in 2009.
It's a well-crafted work. A strong plot sweeps the audience along. Unity of place keeps distracting set changes at bay, while creating an illusion of fragile safety amidst the dangers of the unseen world outside. Each major character reveals fragments of her back story; this exposition, dealt deftly throughout the play, creates texture within and around the scenes. The play shapes, in our imaginations, the characters' lives before and beyond the bar and brothel: picking sweet bananas, going into the village to buy a pot, the menace of boy soldiers at roadblocks. We hear, too, descriptions of horrible acts, but unlike the work of Quentin Tarantino or Martin McDonough, "Ruined" has no callous or studied violence. The play confronts rape, murder, and sexual slavery directly but without prurience or onstage ugliness.
Intiman'ês new artistic director, Kate Whoriskey, directed the New York off-Broadway production, which is restaged here with most of the original cast. They are a talented group whose long experience with the show gives them facility and ease with the demands of Congolese song, accent, and physical expression. They transport us to Mama Nadi's with bold and carefully crafted gestures.
Their hands are especially lively, crossed in supplication or clapped for emphasis, but they use their whole bodies to great effect, especially when they give status to other characters — sometimes as good manners, but mostly out of fear. Live music speeds the pace and provides relief from the grimness.
A few more simple props or lines about coltan mining, which is tied into the manufacturing of cell phones and other electronic devices, would have brought the brothel's clientele and economic engine into better focus. There's often too little emotive connection between the performers, owing perhaps from too long a run, or the demands of accents and complex blocking, or the director's neglect while she focused on so many other details. But the production is strong, showing clearly the pride of the small business owner who has made her own way in a hardscrabble world, the soldiers' disdain, the emotional wounds of abused women, and their differing efforts to heal.