Theater Reviews: The Power of Eclipsed; A Watery Gin Game

From Eclipsed, at the Public. Photo: Joan Marcus

We never learn her name; even in the script, she’s just called the Girl. If her calculations are correct, she’s 15, but the chaos surrounding her makes it difficult to be sure. She is a refugee within her own country, Liberia, at the 2003 height of its wretched civil war, during which the government of Charles Taylor and the coalition of rebel factions known as LURD seemed to compete for awards in atrocity. As a result, the Girl, played by newly minted Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o, spends most of the first scene of Danai Gurira’s harrowing Eclipsed hiding under a plastic tub. She has escaped one nightmare only to land in the midst of another: The likelihood that, should she be discovered by the men who run the LURD compound she’s taken refuge in, she would become a sex slave to any or all of them, especially the dreaded “C.O.” Two of the women who have already met that fate — though they proudly call themselves his wives instead of his rape victims — do what they can to keep the Girl safe in their tiny, bullet-pocked bunker, with its thin metal roof, open doorway, and general aspect of total vulnerability. Their plan succeeds for just one scene. Soon, the Girl is “wife” No. 4.

Eclipsed, now at the Public Theater, is basically the story of the fight for her soul, and for Liberia’s. Will the Girl choose the relatively high status (and safety) that being a wife confers, as No. 1 and No. 3 have done? (No. 1 rules the roost with a strict but sympathetic hand; No. 3, a dreamer, is pregnant with the C.O.’s child.) Or will she follow the example of Wife No. 2, who has liberated herself by becoming an armed soldier and joining in the atrocities? (This one brings the other women desirable gifts, such as hair extensions, as inducements to join up.) Between these options a third eventually emerges in the form of Rita, called Mama Peace, a representative of a mostly female protest movement asking both sides in the conflict to lay down arms. But this is not just a local problem. The larger question is how individuals can find moral positions in war, knowing that they will have to live with themselves when it ends. Do you protect yourself by accommodation, at the cost of your dignity? Do you free yourself by rebellion, at the cost of depravity? Or do you cast your lot with the dreamers, whose moral high road may lead nowhere?

It’s no accident that all three options, if they are options, are represented in Eclipsed by women. This is not just a political play but a feminist play, in theme and execution. Though the wives live in fear of an always imminent and male-identified evil, no men are depicted. (When the C.O. walks by their hut, the women line up at attention for him, but the audience sees only empty space where he would be.) What we experience through much of the play is therefore the kind of activity that attests to the freakish ability of humans to keep on being human — silly, loving, petty — in the most inhuman situations. The women tend to each other’s hair, gossip while cooking, and enjoy being read to from a romance novel that turns out to be a biography of Bill Clinton. (They interpret Monica Lewinsky as a Wife No. 2.) Their clothing, a mixture of local styles and American discards — Nyong’o is costumed in a Tweety Bird T-shirt at one point — suggests the universality of female dailiness, the way large themes such as cultural tyranny play out differently among women than among men. Even the girl soldier’s gun is BeDazzled.

To the extent that Gurira’s choices support such ideas, they are mesmerizing as theater. But the collision of sorority comedy (the women fight over the hair extensions) and war drama (every time one of them leaves the hut you fear for her) eventually tears the play in two. At some point — the first act is overlong — what was gripping starts to feel a little desperate dramatically, as if, having chosen to represent the moral universe of Liberia’s civil war entirely through women, Gurira found she could no longer make them bear all the dramatic weight of a situation that also, of course, involved men. The second act has terrifying and heartbreaking moments, as the Girl makes her choice and tries to carry it out, but it also starts to lose its grip on character reality and move into the realm of parable. In particular, Mama Peace, as that name all but telegraphs, loses her footing in the story and becomes an almost symbolic presence, a kind of Glinda-cum-Bride-of-Christ in blazing white, restoring the other characters to the dignity of, among other things, their original names. Meanwhile, several threads of the actual plot are left untied.

It is perhaps for this reason that Eclipsed, whose title is similarly vague, has not before now had a New York production, despite being well received in its 2009 premiere and in many mountings since then. Another reason may be that Lynn Nottage’s play Ruined, which deals with similar themes but in Congo, opened in New York in 2009 and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Neither excuse is good enough, as the Public’s excellent version, under the taut direction of Liesl Tommy, proves. Yes, the play’s faults are visible, but so, even more starkly, are the insights and conundrums that make it unmissable. Nyong’o is a big part of that, bringing to her role the fierceness and the imaginative capacity to face horror that made her a star in 12 Years a Slave. But she also brings a haunting innocence we may not have expected, and a vivid emotional legibility. Even so, that it took her participation to pull a New York production of Eclipsed together — the rest of the ensemble cast, especially Saycon Sengbloh as Wife No. 1, is every bit as good — says perhaps more than we’d like to know about our resistance to stories whose only inherent glamour is moral.

* * *

So why does a nothingburger of a play like D.L. Coburn’s The Gin Game, first on Broadway in 1977, keep getting produced? Aside from two Broadway revivals, the second of which just opened, it has been filmed twice for television and staged all over the world. It can’t be the Pulitzer Prize it won, which was even then treated as a freak accident. Perhaps it’s the ease of production — the only set, the sunroom of an old-age home, is immobile — or the opportunity to give meaty roles to two older and, if need be, also immobile actors, of the type generally described as “beloved.”

Beloved, James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson certainly are. Whether their roles are meaty depends on whether you classify stamped patties of denatured cow parts as meat. Weller Martin is a longtime resident of the home, disdainful of decline and thus a misanthropic loner; Fonsia Dorsey is a bereft newcomer, hiding beneath her apparent meekness an aggressive streak that, we are asked to believe, alienated her entire family and left her at the mercy of welfare. Nothing happens to either of them in the course of the bleak action except that their foibles are revealed, over and over, in a series of hands of gin, each so exactly alike that the play has proved, for many actors, unmemorizable. The original Weller, Hume Cronyn, is said to have resorted to writing his cues all over the card table.

Whether Jones and Tyson are having memorization problems I cannot say, but the production is so lame and misguided (by the director Leonard Foglia) you would almost prefer that they suddenly started ad libbing selections from far better work each of them has done. As it is, they stick at least to the outlines of the script. In so doing, they successfully establish the general outlines of their characters, and it’s undeniably a nostalgic pleasure, for about one shuffle, to hear Jones boom and bustle and see Tyson offer her aren’t-I-cute moue as she lays out her winning hands. But mostly their game looks like solitaire, not gin: The characters barely relate to one another, and the extremely awkward staging, with one or the other of them almost always facing away from the audience, doesn’t even allow us to see much when they do. Beyond that, the scenes are so interchangeable, and there is so little shape to the evening overall, that you may feel a little demented yourself. Have we been here before? You may also wonder what you are doing outside; Foglia has inexplicably moved the action from the sunroom to the home’s firetrap back porch. This means that in the final scene, which is accompanied unsubtly by a thunderstorm, the two actors are stuck out there in the rain. Perhaps this is meant to evoke King Lear, but I just thought of poker. Fold! Fold!

Eclipsed is at the Public Theater through November 29.
The Gin Game is at the Golden Theatre through January 10.

*A version of this article appears in the October 19, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

Theater Reviews: Eclipsed and The Gin Game