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'Eclipsed' - Smoldering Drama Set in War-Torn Liberia

Pascale Armand, Lupita Nyong'o, and Saycon Sengbloh in Eclipsed
(©Joan Marcus)

Five performers are turning in immaculate and heartrending performances in Danai Gurira's Eclipsed, which has just opened at Broadway's Golden Theatre.

The slow, smoldering drama, which had its New York premiere at the Public Theater last fall, plunges audiences into civil war-torn Liberia in 2003 and the compound of a rebel commander. At this home base, the "wives" of this unseen man struggle to survive and maintain a sense of dignity in face of unconscionable degradation.

These women, along with Rita (Akosua Busia), who comes a peacemaker with an agenda of her own, also fight to retain—or more appropriately relearn—their senses of individuality and identity: the things that have been "eclipsed" by the war.

Rich in detail and drama, the characters' stories are rife for searing performances, and the company, led by Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong'o, deliver turns that simultaneously touch and amuse. Nyongo plays a character simply known as "The Girl," a young woman who, as the play begins, is being hidden inside a bombed out concrete shelter (handsome scenic design and vibrant lighting design by Clint Ramos) by the commander's Wife #1 (Saycon Sengbloh) and Wife #3 (Pascale Armand). It's not long before the commander has raped Girl, making her Wife #4.

Nyong'o, effortlessly radiates warmth and goodness each time she smiles, traverses Girl's discomfiting tale with grace and ultimately harrowing finesse. As audiences slowly discover, Girl saw soldiers slaughter her parents, and while she endures life at the hands of the commander, she has more fight in her than her placid exterior might indicate. When the commander's Wife #2 (Zainab Jah), who has struck out on her own as a solider herself, arrives, she recruits Girl with a promise of self-sufficiency and a life free from abuse. Girl comes to learn, though, that her life with Wife #2 comes at a cost, and in the end, Nyong'o renders delivers a heartbreaking performance as Girl faces exceptional moral conundrums.

Under Liesl Tommy's assured direction, Nyong'o's cast mates deliver equally nuanced and appealing performances. In her turn as Wife #1, Sengbloh exudes both strength and weariness as a woman who, by all estimates, has been tied to the commander for over a decade. There's also an incredible warmth to this woman who finds herself not only attempting to shield Girl, but also the very pregnant Wife #3, whom Armand imbues with comic and charming aggressiveness. Jah's turn as the Wife #2 sparks with appropriate fierceness and gruffness, as well as a cunning level of innocence that lies just below the character's warrior façade.

As the outsider who finds herself both witness to the women's lives and a part of them, Busia brings a wonderful hauteur to the stage, and it's marvelous to watch as Rita's cool, business-like demeanor crumbles during her time at the commander's camp.

Gurira concludes her play on both hopeful and an ambiguously sad notes. What will come next for these five women could be any theatergoer's guess. What's certain is that the time that has been spent in their company is immensely moving and unquestionably rewarding.

---- Andy Propst

Eclipsed plays at the John Golden Theatre (252 West 45th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.eclipsedbroadway.com.