Hard-hitting drama at Florida Studio Theatre with Ruined.
By Kay Kipling
A play set in a bar-brothel in the Congo amid civil war, rape and other atrocities might sound depressing, even though Florida Studio Theatre, which is currently producing Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Ruined, assures audiences it is not. On press night that proved to be true. But there is definitely strong stuff here, so be forewarned.
The worst of what transpires does not take place on the stage, but off it, much of it told to us rather than shown. The main character of the play is Mama Nadi (Alice M. Gatling, who also starred to good effect in FST’s Black Pearl Sings last season), and she is someone to be reckoned with, capable of forcing both rebel and government soldiers to put down their weapons when they enter her establishment. We’re not sure at first if any compassion lurks behind her tough façade; at Mama’s everything is for sale, including sexual services from the women who work for her, and money seems to matter to her more than anything else.
So when her sometime suitor (Stanley Wayne Mathis) brings her, along with some rare Belgian chocolates and other supplies, two more women looking for refuge, she is not eager to take them on. “I don’t have room for another broken girl,” she snaps. And the two new women are indeed broken, or “ruined” in ways that would make them outcasts back in their villages. The older, Salima (Stephanie Weeks), has been used and abused by many men after being kidnapped from her home and her husband; the younger, Sophie (Bianca Sams), has been physically as well as mentally torn and is not really a practical acquisition for a brothel—except that she can sing a little.
Alice M. Gatling and Bianca Sams in FST's Ruined.
Singing is one of the attractions that can help everyone who comes to Mama’s forget the troubles outside. But we know they are building, and we are ready when the explosion comes. There are expected losses, but there is also something of a victory—thus the spirit of hope that Nottage and her characters provide.
While Gatling is the standout here, fierce and strong, the other cast members are up to the challenge of portraying what feel like real people who have suffered without making them martyrs. And in general the tension and trauma are well handled by director Richard Hopkins. What faults lie with Ruined stem from the play itself, which could have been trimmed and tends to make speeches pointing too obviously to what we’re supposed to feel and think.
That said, Ruined will still pack a punch for theatergoers willing to face such unrelenting fare. It continues on FST’s mainstage through April 3; for tickets call 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org.