Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 6, 2016
Eclipsed by Danai Gurira. Directed by Liesl Tommy. Scenic & costume design by Clint Ramos. Lighting design by Jen Schriever. Original music & sound design by Broken Chord. Fight directors Rick Sordelet & Christian Kelley-Sordelet. Voice & dialect coach Beth McGuire. Hair, wig & make-up design by Cookie Jordan. Cast: Lupita Nyong'o, Pascale Armand, Akosua Busia, Zainab Jah, Saycon Sengbloh, Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Ayesha Jordan, Adeola Role.
One thing they no longer are, however, is people in the traditional sense. On the military compound on which the action is set, they're little more than playthingsor slaves. The military leader who occupies the area, known as the "C.O.", has taken local girls as his "brides" to do with as he pleases, when he pleases; by stepping into the doorway and pointing, he identifies the desire that will immediately be fulfilled. (He does not appear onstage, but his presence is chillingly felt.) The oldest of these, aged about 25, has been with him since the first Gulf War and is known only as "Number One" (Saycon Sengbloh). Number Three (Pascale Armand) is about 19 and bearing the C.O.'s child. Where's Number Two? We'll get to that.
For now, the outsider is most interesting. Played by Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave), she's a nameless girl of no more than 15 who fled to the C.O.'s compound following her parents' deaths, and is being hidden by the other wives beneath the giant plastic basin they use for washing their clothes. The closest act of external kindness Numbers One and Three can perform is sheltering the girl from being ripped into unwilling womanhood, though their resourcesand levels of resistanceare so limited, it's hardly a surprise that their success is temporary at best. Once the girl is initiated, she almost immediately longs for the escape and control over her own body that have been denied her.
It's a rich, potent subject that gives Gurira seemingly infinite room to explore the costs and consequences of the war on the ground that we rarely see. With but a temporary almost-exception near the beginning of Act II, the literal battlefields are left in the distance: These battles are being fought by others, by men, who are insulated from the deepest effects of their actions, and thus not the point. The women who receive the wounds and must bear them for this generation and the next are the symbols of the future, the potential being squelched, so Gurira keeps her lens locked in position. That ensures that Eclipsed remains on point and on target throughout, and is thus free to examine questions both sweeping (can these women win this war themselves?) and intimate (will they ever recover the identities that have been stolen from them?).
Nyong'o is excellent as the girl, fully embodying her innocence in terms of what she loses (her virtue, in more ways than one) and what she gains (a stronger sense of self) along the way, and demonstrating the downward spiral of humanity as a whole when confronted with dangers and evils this intense. Though she conveys a complete journey of degradation, if not devolution, Nyongo's girl maintains the spark that makes her unique. You always see this playful figure peeping out from behind increasingly ancient and wearied eyes, fighting against the odds and her surroundings to lead the natural life she longs for; as a result, all her choicesand thus their consequencesadhere to a beautiful, tragic logic that centers and the focus the play.
But Nyong'o is only one member of a fine ensemble. At least as good, and maybe even better, is Sengbloh, whose Number One is a commanding but warm figure at first and undergoes an even more thorough and startling transformation than the girl: to a woman who is on the inside, if not the out, free and awash in possibilities she'd never before considered. Her horizons are expanded by what she learns and experiences. Number Three's are not, and Armand presents a sobering, saddening vision of someone who's incapable of knowing that kind of joy. Jah swings full-tilt in the other direction, carving out a compelling and unsettling portrayal of a woman who's denying conventional answers and morality in favor of making her own way. And though Rita is the thinnest of the characters, Busia imbues her with a winning, robust Earth Mother personality so she feels honest even if she stops just short of fresh.
Despite this production's many virtues, it falls noticeably short of perfection. The natural problems that were evident when this production premiered downtown at The Public Theater in the fall remain and have been amplified in a bigger Broadway house. Liesl Tommy's direction has an arid, even unhinged quality that leaves every scene's pacing just slightly off, as though everything is occurring on a two-second tape delay. And although Clint Ramos's makeshift-chic costumes and Jen Schriever's lights capture a vibrantly violent Liberia, Ramos's set, which combines a claustrophobic stone-box hovel with nonspecific wide-open spaces outside, looks surprisingly indifferent given that everyone embroiled in this situation must take a side.
What that side is and where it will lead is unknown, of course, and it's that knowledge more than any other that torments the women in Eclipsed. Some are desperate for liberty, some merely want to be left alone, some want to play it safe and stick with the status quo. All anyone can be sure of is that there's no longer anything to be sure of, from their names on outward. But from that uncertainty Gurira has wrenched a dazzling, urgent drama that knows what it is, what it wants, and why it mattersfor those suffering no less than its subjects, and everyone else, too. Redemption, of the soul, it insists, is always waiting to be found, if rarely in the form we expect or crave. Through this vehicle Gurira delivers that, and a great deal more.