Intiman's production of Lynn Nottage's "Ruined" tackles a tough subject — the suffering of African women in wartime — with finesse. The show also may make you want to do something, anything, to help women violently subjugated in Congo and elsewhere.

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THEATER REVIEW |

Everybody comes to Mama Nadi’s place, the pungent setting for Lynn Nottage’s enthralling play “Ruined.”

It’s not the shabby décor that draws them. Nor the plates of fufu (mashed yams) on the menu. Nor even the young, wary prostitutes in this backwoods brothel in the People’s Republic of Congo, or the cold beer and watered-down whiskey.

What attracts miners, and soldiers from two rival “liberation” armies, is the prospect of relief from the barbarous, elongated war tearing this West African nation to shreds. And what draws in the working girls who serve these men? Shelter from the furious, deadly storm pounding the “ruins” of their world.

From the first drumbeats of the Intiman Theatre mounting of “Ruined” (based on the original staging of the Pulitzer Prize script by Intiman artistic director Kate Whoriskey), we’re glad to be at Mama Nadi’s, too.

The company is fascinating. Mama herself (played with great style and swagger by Portia, and based on Brecht’s Mother Courage), is a tough entrepreneur with a heart of bronze. A force of nature, she can sweet-talk a thug into surrendering his ammo clip at the bar, and exploits and protects her girls with equal zeal.

Just as intriguing is poetry-spouting Christian (Russell G. Jones), a traveling salesman and unrequited suitor, a man of sensibility and honed survival instincts.

We get to know three prostitutes: shunned, traumatized Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine, who portrays her as a walking, infected wound); Josephine (Cherise Boothe), a chief’s daughter brought low; and lovely, bright and sexually “ruined” rape survivor Sophie (radiant Condola Rashad).

Be prepared: This is a play about war’s agonies and absurdities, about women enduring the most barbaric tortures imaginable. We are not spared the brutal details. Yet Nottage’s achievement, and Whoriskey’s, is to give us much more than a litany of horrors. In the best way, “Ruined” is a throwback to the “well-made play,” rich in incident, in character, in conflict, suspense (via the Rambo-esque rebel leader enacted chillingly by David St. Louis) and, disarmingly, in earthy humor and battleground romance.

That the show also may make you want to do something, anything, to help women violently subjugated in Congo and elsewhere is Nottage’s intent. She tucks rhetorical minitutorials into “Ruined,” as political context and spurs to action. (In October, Intiman will co-sponsor a charity walk-run to benefit Congolese women.)

But Nottage (author of the earlier hit “Intimate Apparel”), is foremost a crafty dramatist — one unabashed about manipulating matters with a streak of melodrama here, an explosive but unresolved plot device there. She gets to us in “Ruined” through the power of her story, and our identification with women (and men) trying to preserve body and spirit amid savagery.

Whoriskey keeps the panorama of activity vivid and lively, helped by Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting. (Derek McLane’s set and Paul Tazewell’s costumes, as well as the lilting music of Rashad, Simon Shabantu Kashama and Ron McBee, are vital, too.)

And with her actors — the magnifique Portia, Rashad, Jones, Bernstine, et al — Whoriskey mines every bittersweet laugh, rugged shock, sensitive revelation. In her first season at the helm, Whoriskey is still establishing herself at Intiman. If “Ruined” is a bellwether of her reign, hurrah. In any case, it is a theatrical experience to brave, to savor, to share.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com