At the start of the second half of “Ruined” at the Berkeley Rep, several members of the cast make their way through the stalls, laughing, reaching out to greet audience members, bursting into song. It’s an attempt at levity, a stab at lightening the mood, but while appreciated, it is doomed. The tone has been set, and even a relatively upbeat end-note does not relieve the tension this unflinching drama creates from the outset.
“Ruined” is set in the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo during a civil war in which many of the victims are women — it is estimated that 200,000 women have been raped there in the past decade.
In the drama, whose beautiful set, designed by Clint Ramos, stands in strong contrast to the anguish that will be played out upon it, we watch a tale of survival unfold.
At its heart is Mama, played by Tonye Patano, a character who is both believable and mesmerizing. Mama’s bar, with its offerings of whiskey, cigarettes and good music, is a hub and safe haven both for soldiers, whichever side they are fighting on, and miners — as well as for the young women who work there as prostitutes. They find their way here from far worse situations.
“Ruined, written by Lynn Nottage and directed by Liesl Tommy, is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and it tells an intense and important tale filled with humanity, hope — and, yes, even touches of humor.
For those who go to see “Ruined” — and in case we haven’t made it clear, we would recommend the play unreservedly — but feel powerless faced with the heart-rending issues it raises, it is worth knowing about HEAL Africa, a nonprofit which helps people specifically in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. In partnership with UNICEF, HEAL Africa identifies and assists survivors of sexual violence and administers treatments for the prevention of the infection of HIV.
“Ruined” is playing at the Berkeley Rep through April 10.
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