For a play whose title evokes things covered up or partially seen, the Unicorn Theatre’s “Eclipsed” is an expansive view into a little-known corner of humanity: Liberia’s civil wars of the 1990s and 2000s.
By exclusively focusing on the women in the conflict, the play also turns what would typically be a side note in a story and turns it into a powerful narrative in its own right.
Written by Danai Gurira, a Zimbabwean-American writer and actress best known for playing Michonne on “The Walking Dead,” the play made history on Broadway in 2016 as the first to be written by, directed by and star all women.
The Unicorn’s production follows suit, with an all-women cast and artistic team.
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The story takes place in a rebel camp in the war-torn west African country in 2003. A new girl has arrived in the complex where two wives of the commanding officer live. All three women were kidnapped or chased from their homes and forced into a life of cooking for the officer and going to him whenever he summons them. Even in this small, circumscribed world, they scrap for what little rank, power or comforts they can get.
Two other characters represent possible ways out. Maima, formerly wife No. 2, has joined the army. For her, fighting is the only way to retake control of her life. Rita, a former businesswoman from the city, visits the camp as part of a nonviolent women’s group working for peace.
The set, the actors and the writing all work together to make the world feel much bigger than what we see on stage.
Emily Swenson’s set design consists of the concrete-and-corrugated-steel home of the women, filled with such bare-bones necessities as a fire grate, cots and a metal washtub. Director Cynthia Levin uses the spaces down front and around the sides to evoke the surrounding camp and other villages the army travels to.
Each of the five characters has a complete arc, and each gets at least one moment to shine. All five actresses bring their characters fully to life.
As Bessie, the pregnant wife No. 3, Ashley Kennedy is the show’s comic relief. Bessie is vain and touchy but also childlike in a lot of ways. Of all the women, she is the most able to find the bright side in her difficult life.
Amber McKinnon plays Rita with a warm competence as she tries to urge the other women that there’s an alternative to violence and war.
Dianne Yvette stands out as Helena (wife No. 1). She’s the protector of the younger women, jaded but pragmatic. She’s seen a lot and worked for what little she has, but has not been so broken as to give up on making a better life for herself.
Njeri Mungai, in her first professional role, is a spark of energy as the warlike Maima. And as The Girl (wife No. 4), Teisha M. Bankston plays the fullest range, going from naive to hardened to traumatized over the course of the play.
The subject matter is heavy but not graphic. There are moments of lightness. Bessie is intent on finding a glamorous new wig in the piles of loot that come in from time to time.
In one such delivery, the women discover a book about President Bill Clinton’s administration, which they read together with as much anticipation as we wait for the next episode of “Game of Thrones.”
New and experimental theater at times seems to trade away story in favor of ideas and timeliness, but “Eclipsed” manages to make a statement and find the universal in the particular by treating each of its characters as fully human and striving to make their shared world as fully realized as possible.