The Unicorn's Ruined uncovers the rubble of war 

Cold beer and distraction" are what draw men to Mama Nadi's bar. And the bar's entertainments help customers forget the horror of the civil war outside in the same way that the pleasures of Lynn Nottage's Ruined help the audience.

The play opens on Mama Nadi and Christian, a traveling merchant, engaged in a barbed, flirtatious bickering that is a well-worn habit and a kind of courtship. Christian is a sweet talker. He's an expert at smuggling goods past the military checkpoints of rebel and government forces alike, and he's able to parry Mama's every harangue with flattery and charm. Considering that he's her only source of supplies for her bar and that he risks his life with every trip from city to bush, you'd think that Mama would treat him more kindly, but such is not her way.

This time Christian has managed to bring her petrol (for the generator, to keep the beer cold) and the red lipstick she requested. Then he takes her outside to show her the special goods in his truck. Mama's eyes light up for just a second before she narrows them and begins to bargain. Of course, she gets her way in the end — one gathers that she always does. Their compromise is that she must take two, but for the price of one.

And that's a problem because the goods are two girls, fresh catches for her business, who must be fed. Mama Nadi's is not just a bar but also the best little whorehouse in the Congo. The beer is cold, but the girls are the distraction. Unfortunately, as Mama bluntly points out, only the less pretty of these two, Salima, is of any use. The other, Sophie, a gentle and educated girl who turns out to be Christian's niece, is "ruined" — so genitally mutilated (she was raped by a bayonet) that the act of walking causes her pain. No good, in other words, for "work."

All of Mama Nadi's girls are victims of war rape. That's why they are there. Salima was kidnapped by a regiment and tied to a tree for five months, forced to service soldiers. Salima finally managed to escape and travel back to her husband, but he beat her and turned her out for being unfaithful. In the eyes of her village, she also is ruined. Mama Nadi's is the only place where these women are welcome.

Mama's fierceness keeps her establishment like an oasis in the escalating chaos. Mama stares down would-be patrons until they leave their weapons at the door, and she maintains a determined political neutrality, the better to serve all sides. Mama is a modern-day version of Humphrey Bogart's Rick in Casablanca — although she is shrewish where he was suave — a war opportunist with hidden depths. In a masterful performance, Nedra Dixon makes sense of every layer of this complex character. Her Mama is at once a harridan and a madam with a heart of gold.

Walter Coppage is a worthy foil as Christian, playing a man who knows both himself and humanity all too well. It is he who understands the significance of the encroaching violence and urges Mama to get to safety while she can. The two veteran actors are wonderful together.

Unfortunately, the supporting cast suffers from unevenness. Caroline Gombe and Samra Teferra turn in diffident, uninflected performances in the important roles of Sophie and Salima, respectively. Gombe comes to life during her songs (helped by Pablo Sanhueza on drums and Richard Gumbel on guitar), but she doesn't convey sadness behind the gaiety. And Teferra fails to bring a long, expository passage to life (it would challenge stronger actresses). Chioma Anyanwu fares better in her energetic portrayal of Josephine, another working girl, who resents the special treatment accorded Sophie.

Tosin Morohunfola was the best thing in Neil LaBute's This Is How It Goes at the Living Room last fall, and I've been wondering when he'd appear again. He's charismatic here as Salima's husband, as is Rufus Burns as his friend. Mykel Hill and Damron Russel Armstrong are menacing as opposition leaders, and John Rensenhouse is very good as a morally suspect American diamond dealer.

I've sometimes felt that Unicorn productions outshine the quality of the material (Distracted and Two Jews come to mind), but in the case of Ruined, a fine play is underserved. Guest director Ricardo Khan needed a stronger hand in the shaping of the story's arc. Without uniformly great acting, one becomes too aware that Nottage, a MacArthur Genius Award winner, is on a mission, albeit a noble one. At times, the play has the feel of a presentation by a foreign-aid worker to concerned citizens. NPR listeners will be familiar with the issues that Nottage tackles: war atrocities against women, the chaos of the Congolese civil war, the thuggery of the untrained and forcibly recruited troops, the corrupting role of the Congo's natural resources.

Nottage's boldness and heart in tackling these difficult themes are admirable (the Pulitzer committee felt the same, awarding her the 2009 Drama Prize), but as it plays at the Unicorn, there's too much duty in the drama.

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