Is any situation more pitiable than the plight of the women of "Eclipsed"? Kidnapped by a Liberian warlord in the midst of some endless, inscrutable conflict, they are forced to live in a squalid shack as his concubines, lining up for a hideous sort of sex call anytime he desires half a minute of gratification.
As a subject for drama, this could have an audience pining for the exits very quickly. The wonder of Danai Gurira's new play, which is receiving its world premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, is that "Eclipsed" is neither depressingly bleak nor oppressively sober. It's a surprisingly vivacious portrait of helplessness, of the entirely human impulse to adapt, to get by even when there's little hope life will get better.
Gurira, born in the United States but raised in Zimbabwe, curls up into the souls of her female characters, a knack she demonstrated at Woolly three years ago with "In the Continuum," the piece she wrote and starred in with Nikkole Salter, about the intersecting lives of women with AIDS. (She also proved to be a radiant presence in the 2008 independent film "The Visitor.") She doesn't appear in this work, but her tight-knit kinship with these characters comes across as if she shared the stage with them. That's because Gurira gives us people under duress as opposed to mere victims under guard: flawed, caustic, funny women, capable of doing harm to each other as well as good.