Theater Review

Dallas theater company nurtures hope in tough but necessary drama

Dallas theater company nurtures hope in tough but necessary drama

Ruined at Echo Theatre
Ruined takes place in the civil war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo courtesy of Echo Theatre
Ruined at Echo Theatre
Whitney LaTrice Coulter as Sophie in Ruined. Photo by Rebecca Brooks
Echo Theatre presents Ruined
Denise Lee as Mama Nadi and Coulter as Sophie. Photo by Pam Myers-Morgan
Ruined at Echo Theatre
Ruined at Echo Theatre
Echo Theatre presents Ruined

The mission of Echo Theatre is to help women's voices be heard, and there perhaps isn't a more appropriate opportunity to let them yell, sing, and whisper than Lynn Nottage's 2009 play Ruined.

Set in the civil war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, the ferocious work isn't about the men who are fighting, but the women around them who are struggling to survive. In Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning story, that means finding sanctuary at Mama Nadi's, a bar and brothel where scarred women and girls try to escape the carnage that's creeping ever closer to their front door.

On Claire DeVries' exquisitely detailed set, Pam Myers-Morgan's large cast (plus three musicians) transport Bath House audiences to a land where soldiers (and their money) command action and a smuggled lipstick or ice-cold Fanta is the ultimate luxury.

It's difficult to imagine in Dallas anyone other than co-producer Denise Lee as Mama Nadi, who is at times sassy and motherly, other times cold and no-nonsense. Her business is not just a means for making money — Mama Nadi remarks often that the girls she shelters are well-fed and protected, and most likely escape certain death by being under her care. But that doesn't mean they weren't already touched by tragedy.

One such refugee is Sophie (Whitney LaTrice Coulter, leading us all on an intriguing journey), who arrives as a buy-one-get-one-free bonus from the traveling salesman who brings girls with his goods. Tyrees Allen is lively and flirty as the always-on-the-go Christian, who confides to Mama Nadi that the timid Sophie is actually his niece, and that she was savagely assaulted by soldiers before he rescued her.

With no use for a "ruined" girl, Mama Nadi only allows Sophie to stay once she demonstrates talents for singing and accounting, and the girl quickly becomes a pet of the math-averse owner. Sophie's acquaintance, Salima (Kristen Bond), reveals a horrifying backstory of her own, but since she is still able to sell the goods that all the soldiers and local miners seek at the bar, she is allowed to stay.

Nottage's ferocious script is layered with horror, as one atrocity after another is either recounted, hinted at, or enacted onstage. Yet the play is still oddly enjoyable, even comforting at times, as the women nurture each scrap of humanity they can find and bring relatable faces to what Westerners might only know as news headlines.

The play is a reminder that this contemporary conflict isn't often talked about in America, though its fallout is still raging. Nottage's work might ruin you emotionally, but Echo's production is worth the ravaging.

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Ruined, presented by Echo Theatre and Denise Lee Onstage, plays at the Bath House Cultural Center through September 23.