Meet the women of "Ruined": Josephine, the haughty chief's daughter. Salima, the simple farmer's wife. Sophie, the beautiful student.
Each was brutalized during the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and all are fighting for survival at a mining-town bar and brothel run by Mama Nadi in Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer-prize winning drama.
A bleak tale, yes, but "Ruined," which opens Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse, is infused with humanity and humor and buoyed by the rich relationships among the actresses who bring it to life: Quincy Tyler Bernstine (Salima), Cherise Boothe (Josephine), Portia (Mama) and Condola Rashad (Sophie). They have devoted much of the past two years to these characters and, by extension, women living in Congo. They consider the work important, rewarding — and very difficult.
They could only have done it for as long as they have, they say, by doing it together.
"There have been times when each of us has hit a wall or found ourselves vulnerable, fragile due to the subject matter and the number of performances," says Portia. "And without saying a word we have been there for one another."
Nottage calls this "perhaps the most incredible group of women I've ever worked with. They take care of each other emotionally, spiritually and artistically."
That sense of caring and camaraderie filled the room one recent afternoon when the actresses gathered at the Geffen to talk about their long journey with "Ruined."
Bernstine, Boothe and Rashad were among the original dozen cast members when the show opened in November 2008 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in a world-premiere co-production with off-Broadway's Manhattan Theatre Club. Portia arrived after the MTC opening in early 2009, succeeding Saidah Arrika Ekulona. The cast that will be seen at the Geffen all played Seattle's Intiman Theatre this summer as part of an Intiman-Geffen co-production.
The earlier versions of "Ruined," directed by Kate Whoriskey, earned critical acclaim, extended runs and honors including Obies for Bernstine, Ekulona and Russell G. Jones, who portrays Christian, a traveling salesman and Mama's long-suffering suitor.
The play has raised awareness about the wartime abuses suffered by Congolese women.
"Doing the research, I had to read a little and then put it down," says Bernstine. "I lost a lot of sleep. I think we all did."
Rashad remembers being overwhelmed by both the material and the idea of appearing in such a major show right out of school. Bernstine, Boothe and Portia were stage veterans, but Rashad – the daughter of actress Phylicia Rashad and sportscaster Ahmad Rashad — had just graduated from California Institute of the Arts.
The other actors immediately made her feel welcome, she says. She, in turn, helped welcome Portia in New York. "By then we could recite everyone's lines and knew all the props and cues. So if it looked like she wasn't sure of something we were there for her."
"If it were any other company I wouldn't have had such an easy transition," Portia says, crediting the cast and Whoriskey with giving her the confidence and freedom to make Mama her own while allowing her to become part of "this incredible machine."
She turns to the others. "Now I have a question. How did it really feel to have someone new come in?"
"It was a delight," Boothe replies. "We had been doing the play for so long it was wonderful to have your complex, dynamic, fun, silly energy."
"Portia also brings love," adds Bernstine. "With what we go through onstage it's important to have genuine support and love."
The women say it took awhile to get inside characters whose circumstances and personalities were so different from theirs. With Josephine, says Boothe, "I had to find a way to not judge her for how she went about surviving and how she treated the other women." Josephine flaunts her sexuality. "I consider myself shyer. It was terrifying to take that on." She overcame her fears in part by confiding in another actress. "She said, 'It's OK. I'm watching you. I've got you.' "
For the actresses, one key is remembering that Mama and her girls give one another support and love — in their own fashion — which help them endure seemingly unbearable troubles and even find hope and a little joy. They note that Nottage based her play on the experiences of refugees she met in Africa and intends her characters to be not tragic victims but complex, real people who embody fragility and resilience, pain and pride. For them, life not only can but will go on.
Over time, the women and the eight men in the company have developed such strong relationships with one another that they and Whoriskey have felt free to push the dramatic intensity of certain scenes, including ones in which Mama and her girls are terrorized by the arrogant commanders and thuggish soldiers who frequent the bar.
"You can take things farther," says Rashad. "Sometimes, I've taken a scene super far because I know that offstage this actor is my brother."
Given the nature of the play, says Boothe, "We're very lucky to have the group of men we do. We are always checking in with each other. Being sensitive and safe."
The heightened intensity plus the Geffen's size — it's the most intimate space the cast has appeared in — promises to make the performances here what the actresses jokingly call "Ruined Extra Extra Strength."
Lest that idea scare anyone already worrying this might be a very grim evening, they want to set the record straight. "This is really a love story," they insist. A lot of beautiful — if bittersweet — love stories about romance, friendship and the meaning of family.
For this cast, "Ruined" will come to an end after L.A. — at least for now. Whatever happens next, says Portia, looking around the room, "these are my girls and they always will be."