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THE UJIMA Company's "Ladies in Waiting" is a genteel title for a fierce and gritty play. These women are waiting -- some for a very long time -- to get out of prison. And while they wait, we watch.

The principal players are four cellmates and Mama, the sadistic guard who wields her power over them. The women act out the basic realities of oppressor and oppressed with shocking power.

Mama's cruelty is unmitigated. Beverly Dove has created a monster with all the force and exaggerated reality of a nightmare. The character is brutal, but also pathetic. She is totally dependent upon the prisoners she victimizes. As one of the women observes, Mama, too, is waiting out her sentence -- in eight-hour shifts.

The harmony of this contentious world is disrupted by the arrival of Lana, a virginal college girl from Scarsdale, sentenced to a month in the slammer for picketing the prison. Lana believes in the dignity of humanity and in the rights of prisoners. Her connection to power in the world outside confuses the power structure of the cell. In an excellent bit of casting, Anne Huiner, a seeming model of fragility and innocence, plays Lana.

The play is both difficult to watch and impossible to look away from. We are given a glimpse of a part of our society that many of us don't want to think about. Why should we care about what happens to these people?

That's precisely the attitude that playwright Peter DeAnda sends lashing back at us by presenting an unflattering mirror image of our culture. With Mama at one end of the spectrum and Lana at the other, he has constructed a horrifying microcosm.

The play is about the connections between love and power, humanity and inhumanity. Lorna C. Hill has provided admirable direction, and has shaped excellent performances from her cast of seven. Barbara Carson provides soulful vocals.

The lines of the play have been drawn with art, not reality. We are working on a poetic plane here. Each woman holds the attributes of a character in a morality play.

Lolly is an insane woman imprisoned for setting fire to her husband. She is the voice of a hateful god who condemns the "sins" of her cellmates. Renee Armstrong's Lolly is a bottomless pit of emotional need. Her performance is convincingly deranged.

Sarah Norat-Phillips makes a compelling Carmen, a prostitute who believes that she is useless and that her punishment is just. Her character is aggravating yet likable, and provides much of the evening's comic relief.

If each man kills the thing he loves, Agrippa, the lesbian who refuses to discuss her crime, is a classic case. She seeks affection more greedily and uses power more effectively than the others. Still, she believes that she is incapable of human emotion.

Agrippa is the pivot of the drama, and Lydia A. Gelsey is up to the task. When she demands to know why Lana should care about total strangers, we see connections to Carmen, who receives affection from the strangers who buy her "love" with cash, but who receives beatings from the man she adores.

We see Mama, who extracts love through violence. We see Lolly, who loves only the cats she has left on the outside. This is the push and pull of a tremendously engaging play.

Ultimately the play is optimistic. The fondness and camaraderie that the woman are able to forge under the worst of circumstances may be futile, but it's hopeful.

Performances will continue at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 6 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 11 in TheaterLoft, 545 Elmwood Ave.

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