The women of “Eclipsed” band together because they must. They are the “wives” of a commanding officer in a rebel camp during the Liberian civil war, and their survival depends on the community they build. In Pegasus Theatre’s searing production, the concept of being stronger together is put into practice by a set of fearless actors giving emotionally powerful performances.
Playwright Danai Gurira, best known as Michonne in “The Walking Dead” and Okoye in “Black Panther,” lays out the direness of the script’s wartime situation early on. She is especially skilled at establishing the stakes for our heroines: Helena (Maya V. Prentiss), or wife number one as she’s called by her “husband,” is getting older and less sexually appealing, but she proves her worth in cooking and cleaning and providing meager amounts of food for her fellow women. Bessie (Aja Singletary), or wife number three, is pregnant and convinced she will hate her child. Maima, or wife number two, has abandoned her sexual servitude by joining the rebel army, and willingly sacrifices other young girls to her previous fate so that she may survive. Into this mix comes The Girl (Sola Thompson), a fifteen year-old that at first Helena and Bessie attempt to hide before she becomes part of the wife cohort as well. Rita (Moraya Orija) reaches out to this community as a peace activist, but finds walls, emotional and physical, placed before her.
Director Ilesa Duncan encourages her performers to make the boldest possible choices, even in simple negotiations over supplies, and the resulting conflict between the women comes across loud and clear. Prentiss, in particular, is fine as the leader losing control over her charges. Orija provides a quiet center for smaller moments of grief, and Singletary gives the audience some much-needed laughs. If Reid is perhaps too one-note as the bullying soldier struggling to defend her own power, I still understand the drive of the performance. And Thompson as The Girl brings confusion and humanity to the forefront of these circumstances.
Gurira’s script makes quick work of the dynamics at play in the rebel camp, but I wonder if a slower burn to the play’s events may have allowed for the second act to ascend to more devastating heights. She establishes a mystery surrounding Maima without providing an ounce of hope that she may come back into the fold. She allows The Girl to explore the possibilities of power in her choices, but doesn’t allow those choices to land onstage, so we are left with a person stuck between two worlds by play’s end, without a sense of which way she may lean. The play tells an important story, but allowing the conflict time to expand would help the speeches about the horrors of war and loss of humanity land.
The shack these women share is small and resembles a bombed-out wreck in Jacqueline Penrod’s design. Megan Turnquist’s lighting helps us know when we are on the battlefield and when we are in a safe environment. And Owé Engobor’s costumes bring color and transformation into the dim lives of these women. But Tony Bruno’s sound design and Amanda Caputi’s acapella music really place us in the world of the play. When the women sing offstage, they invite us to join their community, for better or worse, and suggest there could be harmony here.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: A harrowing journey into wartime survival sears into one’s memory.
DIE RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”
Venue: Chicago Dramatists (1105 W Chicago Ave)