Somewhere deep in the Congo, Mama Nadi is trying to keep the war at bay. Outside her makeshift bar and brothel, the sounds of explosions and gunfire can be heard at regular intervals. Inside, customers are required to check their bullets at the door.
In “Ruined,” Lynn Nottage’s powerful drama of war and gender, Mama’s place is a refuge — not just for the soldiers and miners who come there for drinks and comfort, but for the women she employs to serve them. Yet even as they try to escape the war outside, those women are living symbols of its cruelty.
In the gripping new Berkeley Repertory Theatre production directed by Liesl Tommy, two of those women appear in the play’s first scene.
Salima (Pascale Armand) and Sophie (Carla Duren) are “ruined” — victims of the widespread rape used by soldiers as a tactic of war — and so damaged that Mama (the excellent Tonye Patano) wants to turn them away. At the urging of her friend and frequent supplier, Christian (Oberon K.A. Adjepong), she finally takes them in.
At first, it appears that Salima and Sophie are better off under Mama’s care — after all, she reminds them, they’ll be shunned if they return to their own villages. But as the drums of war beat ever closer, no one is truly safe.
The scenes portraying the rival factions — especially those under the despotic Commander Osembenga (Adrian Roberts) — are intense.
But Nottage, who won a Pulitzer Prize for “Ruined,” based the play on extensive interviews with Congolese women, and their stories form the heart of the play. The 2½ hour production reaches its dramatic apex when Salima breaks her silence and recounts the five months of torture she endured as a prisoner of war.
Tommy’s staging puts the audience in the center of the action. Clint Ramos’ set, effectively lit by Lap Chi Chu, is an authentic mix of ramshackle structures and verdant jungle.
Kathleen Geldard’s costumes, sound by Broken Chord and choreography by Randy Duncan help raise the temperature. Live music by Alvin Terry and Adesoji Odukogbe supplies a pulse.
Sophie’s songs, hauntingly sung by Duren, and an unexpected twist in the show’s final moments offer a measure of hope. Much of “Ruined” is harrowing. In the end, though, the play is a testament to those who have experienced the worst of war, and survived.
Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. most Thursdays and Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes April 10
Tickets: $34 to $73
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org