If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

YALE OFFERS A POTENT “ECLIPSED”

At the Yale Repertory Theatre, the tragedy of Liberia’s unfathomable recent civil war is brought to full light in “Eclipsed”, a poignant and raw new play by Danai Gurira that is both a riveting survival story and a potent study of female empowerment.  The New Haven theatre, with this current offering, offers its best new play in what seems like ages.

Set in 2003 during the waning days of the war, “Eclipsed” focuses on a group of female survivors -- in particular the “wives” of a rebel commanding officer who share a tiny hovel in the jungle while catering to his various sexual and domestic demands.  Gurira provides a fascinating portrait of women under the most dire of circumstances who somehow find reserves of courage and grit. 

A pecking order has been established within this group of three: Helena (Stacey Sargeant), the elder first “wife” is clearly in charge; Bessie (Pascale Armand), the second “wife” who is pregnant with the C.O.’s child and “The Girl” (Adepero Oduye), a new addition to the group.  We soon learn that a missing “wife”, Maima (Zainab Jah), has left the household to become a soldier in the civil war.    It is Maima’s return, along with a visit from Rita (Shona Tucker), an educated woman connected with an active peace group in the area, which triggers the action as all five women make individual choices for survival.

This is a remarkable drama, full of unpredictable action, heartbreak and unexpected humor.  The discovery of a tattered biography about Bill Clinton serves as a running gag in the play while scenes of almost unbearable tension occur when guns get pointed in a world where life is cheap and lives are disposable.   There is also the sobering realization about the personal fallout that occurs in any war.  According to program notes, the playwright visited Liberia and conducted interviews with women who serve as the inspiration for this play.  It is to Ms. Gurira’s credit, however, that “Eclipsed” never dissolves into a polemic with unnecessary speechifying or wringing of hands.  Her heroines are far too original and humane to go that route. 

The actors are all terrific -- a true ensemble of women perfectly matched with their characters and each other.  These are thoroughly lived-in roles; compelling stories of damaged souls on the edge played without a hint of sentiment, self-pity or commentary.  It is stirring, praiseworthy work all around.

Also effective is German Cardenas earthy scenic design complimented by Marcus Doshi’s precise lighting. The jungle environment is beautifully realized in the sound design by Broken Chord Collective members Daniel Baker and Aaron Meicht and Elizabeth Barrett Groth’s rag-tag costuming expertly defines characters.  It may take American ears a few minutes to adjust to the actors’ highly authentic accents (credit dialect coach Beth McGuire), but it is well worth any effort.  The riches that a play like “Eclipsed” can provide, pay off grandly.  Don’t miss it.

 “Eclipsed” continues at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven through November 14th.  For further information or ticket reservations call the box office at 203.432.1234 or visit: www.yalerep.org.

Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company.  He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com.  His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.


This review first appeared in Elm City Newspapers on November 4, 2009.


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