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Domestic identity at risk during war in Subversive Theatre's 'Eclipsed'

Domestic identity at risk during war in Subversive Theatre's 'Eclipsed'

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Subversive Eclipsed Press Photo 3

Janaé Leonard, Robyn Fonn and Nina Brown star in "Eclipsed," being presented by Subversive Theatre. (Photo courtesy of Lawrence Rowswell)

If war is hell, then a play about wartime should make us feel all its horror. With a first-rate cast and fantastic production, Subversive Theatre’s “Eclipsed” offers a stunning spectacle of civil war. This is theater at its visceral best.

Written by Danai Gurira, “Eclipsed” won acclaim in its 2016 run. Masterfully directed by Ebony Pace, this sublime production shows why this mesmerizing play struck such a nerve with Broadway audiences.

“Eclipsed” tells a riveting story set in 2003, in the final year of the Second Liberian Civil War. Focusing on five women brought together by an ugly war, the play unfolds in the forest compound of a warlord associated with the brutal rebel group LURD.

Gurira’s script brilliantly focuses most of our early attention on the domestic lives of three women. While we watch them go through such everyday tasks as cooking or laundry, we learn the savage details of a war that takes place mostly off-scene.

Such domesticity make it especially shocking when we later witness women with assault weapons hunting both soldiers and civilians.

The dehumanizing violence of civil war is communicated immediately: these three women are identified only by numbers. They are called No. 1, No. 3 and No. 4 — according to their ranking as wives of a warlord.

Nina Brown offers an exceptional performance as No. 4. At first hidden by No. 1 and No. 3, No. 4 is eventually raped and forced into marriage.

Dejected by her new life, No. 4 finds some solace with No. 1 and the talkative No. 3, who is cheerfully played with comic relief by Robyn Fonn. Fascinated by No. 4’s ability to read, the three women find hope by reading and discussing a biography of Bill Clinton.

Brown powerfully conveys No. 4’s drive to escape systematic rape by becoming a soldier. She convincingly embodies an innocent child made to do terrible things — but who ultimately manages to hold onto herself and escape the war intact.

No. 4 is helped by the calming, dignified passion of No. 1. In a standout performance, Janaé Leonard presents No. 1 as a long-suffering but determined woman who refuses to be demoralized — or to give up on No. 4’s innocence and potential.

Breathtakingly conveying her uncertainty about who she even might be in a world without war, Leonard delivers an electric performance that highlights the play’s central theme — that identity itself is at risk during wartime. Ultimately learning to write her name, No. 1 compellingly portrays human perseverance by staying strong enough to remember that she is actually Helena.

Besides losing their names due to systematic sexual violence, Liberian women can also lose themselves by taking on military identities. Having left her life as wife No. 2, Maima (played with ferocious power by Shawnell Tillery) becomes someone new, adopting the war-name "Disgruntled."

Gurira refuses to simply demonize No. 2: instead, she links No. 2’s viciousness and cynicism with a hunger for independence. Convinced that the only way to combat rape culture is to participate in the atrocities themselves, No. 2 actively erases her old self.

An outsider also participates in this battle over identity. The peace worker Rita (played with graceful earnestness by Davida Tolbert) urges No. 2 to lay down her arms. Passionately arguing that Maima should remember her past, Rita tries to keep her from losing herself in the war.

Though she cannot convince Maima, Rita helps Helena and No. 4 pursue a better life elsewhere. The play ends with both optimism and dread: No. 3 sings happily to her newborn child — but only after she chooses to stay in the compound.

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Theater review

4 stars (out of 4)

Through March 29 at the Manny Fried Playhouse (255 Great Arrow Ave., Suite 302.). Tickets are $30 ($25 for students, seniors and members; Sunday is pay what you can). Reservations at subversivetheatre.org or 462-5549.

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