At Mama's tavern in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, you can get the only beer around in 50 kilometers. You can get songs from a live combo about the 1998-2003 civil war that never really ended, or get cigarettes or a bite of the local food, or, if you're a guy, get it on with one of Mama's girls in the back rooms. Mama's take on her place: "People come here to leave behind whatever mess they made out there."
But how long can Mama exist in her own world? Outside her doors, the two sides - illiterate soldiers and rebels, cut from the same ragged cloth - encroach. Their violence is unfocused and grisly. Each side ransacks villages, enslaves men, rapes women, and kills children. How much longer can an oasis like Mama's place be more than a fool's paradise? Or is it already?
In Lynn Nottage's powerfully crafted Ruined, which opened Wednesday night in director Maria Mileaf's riveting production by the Philadelphia Theatre Company, you want so much to believe that Mama's place, however unseemly it may be, is reality, and the stuff outside its doors is only a nightmare - otherwise, life on Earth makes little sense.
The play's not perfect - it sags a little in the second act before it begins again to grab you - but it works solidly on many levels: its characters, drawn with nuance and fitted with sentiments that are real; its context, a war that was particularly violent against women and, as one character says, fought on a battlefield of their bodies; its definition of liberation as a political tool.
Mostly, though, on the stage of the Philadelphia Theatre Company's Suzanne Roberts Theatre, it works as a tale about hanging on, unspooled by a cast that tells it with exceptional clarity, on an evocative set by Antje Ellermann that seems exactly the sort of place Mama would run.
Heather Alicia Simms, as Mama, leads the dozen-actor cast with her unswerving interpretation of a woman who rules her roost with a single vision: money. She may be the queen of rural luxury to the soldiers from both sides and to the gritty farmers and gem miners who pop in for what amounts to both inaction and action, but underneath her welcome to all who behave, Mama is the captain of her own industry.
The attractive Simms plays Mama realistically in all her forms - demanding one minute, smooth and silky the next, and anything she wants to be to keep the place on solid footing. Simms has a great asset in her expressive eyes, and she acts strikingly with them. "Cheri, your eyes tell me everything I had to know," says her supplier of goods and whores (the excellent Oberon Adjepong); he might as well be talking about Simms herself.
The others are likewise superb: Keona Welch, Erika Rose and chandra thomas (she uses no capital letters) play Mama's girls; veteran Philadelphia actor-director Paul Meshejian is a gem dealer, James Ijames is a desperate soldier, and the rest are assorted customers of combat ranks large and small.
The title of Nottage's play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2009, refers to Congolese women gang-raped and sexually mutilated by multiple soldiers who invaded their homes and fields. They are twice victimized because their husbands, families, and friends treat them as outcasts. But Ruined works on such a high level because it means so much more. It's a metaphor, in this meticulous telling, for breakdown, for war, for everything that means we are no longer wholly human.
Presented by the Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St., through June 12. Tickets: $46-$59. Information: 215-985-0420 or www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org. EndText