Figuratively speaking, at least, the stars shine with a blinding brightness in Synchronicity Theatre’s “Eclipsed,” an otherwise grimly gut-wrenching and deeply heart-rending drama by Danai Gurira about a small group of Liberian women torn asunder by a vicious civil war (circa 2003).
Abducted from their lives and homes, held captive in a shack on a military compound run by an unseen “C.O.” (in a couple of halting moments, he chillingly whistles at them from offstage to demand sex), they’ve been stripped of their freedom and humanity — and even their own names, now known simply as Wife No. 1 or Wife No. 3. Over the course of Gurira’s haunting but hopeful play, each of the characters will struggle with the idea of reclaiming her given name and personal identity.
In that spirit, remember these names: Asha Duniani, Shayla Love, Charity Purvis Jordan and Isake Akanke, who portray the “wives” in director Tinashe Kajese-Bolden’s stirring Synchronicity staging. (The excellent Parris Sarter, so memorable in last year’s “The Revolutionists” at 7 Stages, completes the ensemble as a “peacekeeping” organizer who crosses their paths.)
Frankly, having read and heard a lot about the 2015 Broadway production of “Eclipsed” (featuring Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o), I imagined the cast would be packed with any number of prominent and proven local talents to tackle such demanding roles – and somewhat dismayed, admittedly, to realize they were being entrusted to four unfamiliar faces instead.
My bad. In their uniformly extraordinary performances, they put me and those preconceptions to shame. That we might not initially recognize them as actresses just makes it all the more meaningful and rewarding to discover and connect with them as their characters. In the few minutes it takes to acclimate to their heavy African accents (Jan Wikstrom is credited as the show’s dialect consultant), you may begin to wonder if they aren’t actually from Liberia, so utterly authentic and persuasive do they sound and feel.
With an accomplished facility that belies her young age, Duniani embodies the central character, billed only as the Girl, whose transition from naive innocent to downtrodden Wife No. 4 to battle-scarred warrior is galvanizing in its conviction.
Love is beautifully understated as the maternal Wife No. 1, who takes the Girl under her protective wing. While not exactly comic relief, Jordan provides a much-needed balance as the boisterous Wife No. 3. And Akanke is the former Wife No. 2, who now bears arms as a fierce soldier with the rebel forces.
By the end of the play, Gurira eventually gives each of the women tearful, soul-searching speeches that border on the theatrical and melodramatic, but are nevertheless tempered by the cast with an appreciable naturalism. In their unexpectedly qualified hands, under Kajese-Bolden’s taut direction — and not to mention the strikingly rendered scenic design of Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay — as surely as war is hell, we ultimately sense that we are right there with them.
Through June 25. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays; 8 p.m. Monday (June 12 only). $23-$41 (Wednesday and Monday shows are pay-what-you-can). Synchronicity Theatre, 1545 Peachtree St. (in the Peachtree Pointe complex), Atlanta. 404-484-8636, www.synchrotheatre.com.
Bottom line: An emotional drama, vividly enacted.
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