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Sterling Jarvis and Yanna McIntosh in a scene from "Ruined"

Chris Gallow

3.5 out of 4 stars

"Performance" is an insufficient descriptor for what Yanna McIntosh is giving onstage at Toronto's Berkeley Street Theatre right now. It's more like an earthquake of acting.

In African-American playwright Lynn Nottage's Ruined, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival company member plays Mama Nadi, a formidable madam who runs a brothel and bar in a remote mining town in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Inspired by Bertolt Brecht's mercenary Mother Courage, this independent businesswoman not only survives but thrives amid the chaos of civil war. As long as ammo is left at the bar, she'll serve any gun-toting man who comes into her establishment, whether government soldier or rebel militia - and who is who and which is which shifts from day to day.

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Mama Nadi is fierce with customers when her hospitality is taken for granted, wielding a machete if need be (her well-honed biceps show she means business), and casually cruel to her girls, whose sob stories she has no time for. Her lack of surface sentimentality makes her a obvious match for McIntosh, whose recent performances as Lady Macbeth and Condoleezza Rice have sometimes been so cool they've been mistaken for cucumbers.

But the powerful actress lets the audience into her character's inner workings whenever she can this time, letting us see the hot magma moving below the hard surface. When the cracks finally begin to show in Mama Nadi's facade and philosophy, it will shake you right down to your foundation.

At the start of Ruined, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2009, Mama Nadi is reluctantly convinced by travelling salesman Christian (Sterling Jarvis) to buy his niece Sophie (Sabryn Rock) to work in her bar. Raped and mutilated by militia men, Sophie is, in the cruel village calculus of one of the poorest countries in the world, "ruined." "You're lucky you have such a good uncle," says Christian, before he departs. "A lot of men would have left you for dead."

Sophie's is hardly the only horrendous tale among Mama Nadi's employees. Her roommate Salima (Sophia Walker) was held captive as a sex slave for five months by militiamen, chained to a tree by her foot "like a goat." What truly breaks the heart, however, is how she was received when she finally returned to her family: Instead of being embraced, she was shunned by her husband and her relatives for bringing dishonour to the family.

These terrible stories of rape as a weapon of war are based on interviews Nottage conducted with women on trips to East Africa in 2004 and 2005 - and the details are not spared. Ruined may be inspired by Brecht's famous anti-war play, but stylistically it couldn't be further away from the German playwright. It doesn't try to distance you from the conflict in the Congo, but emotionally immerse you in it.

Working with such heavy material, Ruined's conventional, old-fashioned structure is not unwelcome - it's the soothing candy coating on subject matter that might otherwise be too hard to stomach.

Nottage does not always express her anger with complete subtlety - as when a character yells out, "You will not fight your battles on my body any more." And she doesn't have the courage to take Ruined where it is heading - the play almost seems to reboot when things get too immediately threatening.

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Director Phil Akin nevertheless carves out a clear path through the text in his solid production, a collaboration between Obsidian Theatre and Nightwood Theatre. Not every cast member is as spectacular as McIntosh - Rock is just one of several performers who haven't quite left North America in their mannerisms. Marci T. House, however, is another force of nature as a particularly proud prostitute named Josephine, who keeps reminding everyone that her father was a chief, and Walker does the best work I've ever seen from her in Salima's long speech, a description of her ordeal that is rickety as drama, but profoundly moving nonetheless.

Jarvis, meanwhile, gives a deceptively simple performance as the comical Christian, who attempts to hide his anguish in humour, poetry and alcohol. His final scene opposite Mama Nadi is just gorgeous. Sentimentality creeps in, but the moment has been earned.

Ruined

  • Written by Lynn Nottage
  • Directed by Philip Akin
  • Starring Yanna McIntosh
  • At the Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto

Ruined runs until Feb. 12.

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