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If plays are boxing matches with an audience, they all throw punches, some solid, some glancing, some airy nothing. Plays that linger counterpunch. These land on your way out the door, in the parking lot, or, sometimes, days and even weeks later a moment or a scene registers anew. If plays are boxing matches, Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, at the La Jolla Playhouse, is this year’s bout with Muhammad Ali.

Parts return unannounced. Like Mama Nadi giving money to Sophie that she could have used herself (the gesture growing in magnitude long after the fact — she did that?). Or the biblical suffering that Sophie, Salima, Josephine, and the others endure. Or that complete surprise: an unforgettable scene where three young prostitutes read from a romance novel with the giggles of innocence.

Author of Intimate Apparel, Crumbs from the Table of Joy, and others, Nottage wanted to reset Mother Courage in the strife-laced Democratic Republic of Congo. She traveled to refugee camps in neighboring Uganda and interviewed Congolese women, in particular about their relation to war. The stories, the violence perpetrated by “mother-hating” men fighting for liberation, were unthinkable. Among them: rapes so brutal the women’s wombs were “ruined.”

In the villagers’ minds, a raped woman is lower than a whore. Villagers cast out the women for letting “those dirty men” do it. Some, like Salima, are convinced they enabled the atrocity. Mama Nadi asks “ruined” Sophie, “Are you strong enough to stomach [the villagers’] hate? It will be worse than anything you’ve felt yet.”

Instead of rewriting Mother Courage, Nottage sought signs of hope. Ruined recalls the motto of Don Sherwood, legendary San Francisco talk-show host: “Out of the mud grows the lotus.”

Mama Nadi’s brothel-bar has become a demilitarized zone in the Ituri rain forest. She makes the rules. Whether you are military, rebel, or miner, you check your guns, and attitude, at the door. That she’s been able to sustain this fragile haven is itself an achievement, albeit a day at a time.

When the play begins, forces close in, threatening Mama’s neutrality. Christian, a chipper traveling salesman who prefers Fanta orange soda to more robust fluids, wants to sell teenagers Sophie and Salima, both raped by rebel soldiers, to Mama Nadi. Amid the turmoil of the region, half of its people starving, what looks like slavery is actually a favor — and, as hindsight reveals, a blessing.

Ruined does this a lot: something looks a certain way; then, as you experience more of the play, the view changes, adds positives. For example, at first Madame Nadi resembles Brecht’s Mother Courage. But differences grow: Courage moves her wagon with the war, exploiting as she goes; Nadi is stationary, surrounded, and offers shelter. Her women are prostitutes, make no mistake (and if things go bad, “Mama eats first”), but under Nadi’s rules they will not be abused.

The first act is such a stunner you wonder where the play can go. In act two, Nottage opens it outward, building concentric circles around the core event. She starts with a storybook situation: Salima’s husband waits for her in the rain for days. Surely she’ll go back to her loving man. But this play’s about survival, not happily-ever-after. Salima’s monologue (delivered with aching accuracy by Pascale Armand) spins fantasy on its ear.

Another surprise: With few exceptions, in act one the males are Satan’s minions. In two, men’s monologues complicate the picture. In a different way, they are “ruined” as well. The civil war, fought for natural resources, has leached their souls.

Somehow, the production repeatedly finds hope — and even humor — amid the devastation. Director Liesl Tommy does an amazing job with tricky tonal shifts (in what seems a conventional dramatic form, Ruined makes volatile leaps and swerves). Along with a soundscape and score by Broken Chord, and Randy Duncan’s choreography, the director integrates music in the play’s texture.

Tonye Patano makes Mama Nadi a vulnerable force. She asserts, she takes regal steps, but Patano subtly suggests that Madame Nadi hides another story; glimpses come from her efforts to repress it. So does Oberon K.A. Adjepong’s Christian, whose perennial smile masks the pain; at one point, Zainab Jah’s Josephine almost explodes from pressures without and within.

Carla Duren’s Sophie, so “ruined” she’s bad luck, takes the show aloft with her singing (backed by Adesoji Odukogbe on guitar and Alvin Terry on drums).

As I re-viewed Ruined, it threw a left cross. Nottage’s concentric circles expand across the globe. The miners dig for an ore called coltan. Mama Nadi: “Six months ago it was just more black dirt. I don’t get why everyone’s crawling over each other for it.”

“In this damnable age of the mobile phone,” Mr. Harari replies, “it’s become quite the precious ore, no?” Coltan is used in cell phones and computer chips. ■

Ruined, by Lynn Nottage
La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, UCSD
Directed by Liesl Tommy; cast: Oberon K.A. Adjepong, Pascale Armand, Jason Bowen, Carla Duren, Wendell B. Franklin, Zainab Jah, Joseph Kamal, Adesoji Odukogbe, Kola Ogundiran, Okieriete Onaodowan, Tonye Patano, Adrian Roberts, Alvin Terry; scenic design, Clint Ramos; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; lighting, Lap Chi Chu; sound/original music, Broken Chord; choreographer, Randy Duncan; wigs, Leah Loukas.
Playing through December 19; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010.

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