It's a dense, story laden script, this horrific tale of utter inhumanity, but Artistic Director Joe Adler has presented it in such spectacular fashion and the actors are of such excellence, that we are transported immediately into the sordid confines of a bar cum whorehouse in the Democratic Republic of Congo and for two hours we suffer the pain of the ruined girls and finally rejoice in their vestiges of hope
Lyle Baskin has built a two story set that overflows GableStage's wide playing area and it is a thing of beauty. There are 15 actors in the cast and at one point I counted 11 of them on stage at the same time. No crowding, no focus pulling; just poor whores who a few months previously had been innocent farm girls and young thugs masquerading as soldiers, strutting with their AK47s, gold jewelry and Ray Bans. The men play at pool, lounge drinking at the tables, brutalize the girls, and are completely interchangeable. These are the 'soldiers' who for decades have been ravaging Africa in the endless wars of you-have-it and I-want-it. There are no rules except the machete and the bullet.
Mama runs the whorehouse and Mama comes first in everything. She trades for the broken women who work for her, women who have nothing left and nowhere to go. Mama feeds them, and clothes them and tries to keep them safe in the midst of carnage. But of course her whore's heart of gold is slightly tarnished. Lela Elam is Mama. It's the pivotal role and in handling it as she does, Elam lays claim, once again, to being one of the very best actresses on the South Florida stage.
Robert Strain is Christian, a besuited trader who faces the danger of the roads to provide Mama with the supplies she needs and is an innocent man who falls and eventually finds himself once again. David Kwiat is safari clad, barefooted (shoes get stolen at checkpoints) Mr Harari, also a trader and anything but innocent diamond dealer, the only white man in the area and confidante of Mama. Renata Eastlick, Jade Wheeler and Trenell Mooring are the three young prostitutes, each barely surviving and each with a terrible tale. Rival army commanders and believers in spells stopping bullets are Keith Wade and Sheaun McKinney. Fortune, wailing and waiting husband, is played by Marckenson Charles with McLey Lafrance as his anxious cousin. A terrific cast rounded out admirably by Jerel Brown, Devon Dassaw and Rico Reid as murderous soldiers.
Guitarist Verdi M. Mayer, Jr and percussionist Maracuja provide music for the singing and dancing in Mama's Bar and in one outstanding dance scene Renata Eastlake's frantic bumping and grinding brings new meaning to a touch of lust. Wonderful.
Back to the set: Wooden and apparently made up old boxes and other containers, it is entirely realistic, with its bar, pool table, tables and chairs, upstairs bedroom and exits into the surrounding jungle. When the lights are lowered for scene changes, light leaks through the cracks in the back boards and we see the pounding rain and can almost smell the rotting jungle.
Matt Corey's native sounds and the exquisite lighting of Jeff Quinn are the best, as is the costuming of Ellis Tillman.
An evening to long remember, this harrowing Ruined, based on the true stories of survival under the very worst of circumstances.
Ruined plays at GableStage through October 7. 1200 Anastasia Avenue, Coral Gables 305-445-1119 http://www.gablestage.org/
Photos by Marj O'Neill-Butler