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Men felt but not seen in stark ‘Eclipsed’



♦ Through Feb. 20

♦ Northlight Theatre, 9501 N. Skokie Blvd., Skokie

♦ Tickets, $30-$50

♦ (847) 673-6300;

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Men start wars. Women must find ways to survive them. And it is their strategies for survival that are of the essence in “Eclipsed,” Danai Gurira’s play, now at Northlight Theatre, where director Hallie Gordon and her five actresses, along with master set designer Jack Magaw, have found ways to make the life force palpable.

Gurira’s play is about the horrific oppression and brutalization of women during the civil wars that raged in the West African nation of Liberia from the 1980s until 2004. But more than that, it is about how many of these women managed not only to endure, but even to prevail.

Details of the war are expertly spelled out in the playbill, but it is worth noting here that Liberia has a female president now, and that former President Charles Taylor, charged with crimes against humanity, is in the Hague, with a verdict in his trial expected later this year.

Gurira has set “Eclipsed” in 2003, near the end of the war, homing in on a little shack at the rebel army camp where a powerful commander’s multiple “wives” (the euphemism for “sex slaves”) are confined.

What is most remarkable about this production, in which men are never seen but powerfully felt, is the way it conjures a genuine sense of the women’s shared daily life and their fierce instinct for adaptation. Magaw’s cutaway corrugated and concrete block set, which might easily have been airlifted straight out of Africa, has a superb sense of place, and the actresses fully inhabit it.

At 25, Helena (the ever-natural Alana Arenas) is the oldest of the wives and, though no longer the favored sex partner, now the caretaker. Bessie (the luminous, deftly comic Leslie Ann Sheppard), still in her late teens, is very pregnant, ambivalent about the baby and worried about her looks. A new arrival, called only The Girl (an ideally smart but guiless Paige Collins), is just a schoolgirl from a big city, and the only literate one among them. Helena tries to protect her from sexual initiation, but to no avail.

Arriving later is Maima (fiery Tamberla Perry), formerly “Wife No. 2,” who has rejected the slave/wife role, taken up arms and turned as brutal as the men. She now sets her sights on indoctrinating The Girl. Representing “a third way” of coping is Rita (Penelope Walker), a businesswoman whose life has been devastated by the war. She tries playing the role of official mediator, even if she is largely impotent.

If all this sounds a bit schematic, well, it is. But Gordon has found ways to infuse the production with truth. And with the arrival of a book about Bill Clinton (and his “second wife,” Monica), Gurira not only infuses her story with comic relief, but very wittily reveals a gap in cultural perceptions that not even war can alter.

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