In an already busy theatre market, the Triangle’s acceptance of the Women’s Theatre Festival has allowed the festival to expand its programming offerings to include more recognizable plays from New York as well as expanding its venue partners. Friday night, July 27, welcomed not one but two openings for the Festival’s final two shows: Eclipsed at the Durham Fruit Factory and These Shining Lives at the Carrboro ArtsCenter. While the ambition of WTF to expand is commendable, Friday night’s opening of Eclipsed showed that there is still much room to grow for the Festival.

To begin, the evening’s performance did not start until 25 minutes after the projected 7:30 curtain time. The audience began to shift in their seats as the lights went down only for a curtain speech to be given. Following that, a small lightboard reset was done and the show began.

Eclipsed is a hugely ambitious show for a young, small theatre group to take on. Set during the Second Liberian Civil War, the play follows the women held captive as wives to a commanding officer of a rebel army. They are degraded by not having names but only the number wife they are. Numbers 1 and 3 (played with fierce chemistry by Zora Umeadi and Daphne Trevathan) maintain routines of making food, washing clothes, and serving the CO whenever he desires pleasure. Number 2 is absent, having run off to fight in the resistance movement. Nos. 1 and 3 work hard to shield the newest addition to the compound, a 15-year-old girl, from the horrors of the CO and the war outside. When Maima, the Second Wife, returns from the battlefield, she shows the Girl that her options are to continue a life in the compound or become a soldier and fight for independence. Rita, a non-violent peace worker, tries to convince the Girl that violence and subservience are not the ways to freedom: knowledge is.

Danai Gurira’s script is brilliantly structured and written with specific Liberian dialects that create a musical language reminiscent of ensemble-driven dramas by Arthur Miller and Clifford Odets.

The execution of this challenging work should be commended, yet the play’s intensely dark center is skirted around but never fully embraced. The production focuses on the communal aspect of the women in the compound, and truly the highlights of the evening occurred in the banter between Umeadi and Trevathan. Diatra Langford was appropriately violent as Maima, the Second Wife, and was a good foil for Me-Me Cowans-Taylor’s sensitive Rita.

Alec Haklar’s sparse set is used as multiple locations other than the compound, with Lisa Suzanne’s limited lighting augmenting the different locations. During transitions, the production would have benefited from some sound design to fill the awkward silences. Director Michele Okoh’s staging lacks creativity, given the expansiveness of the space, and the overall pace of the play continuously detracted from the dramatic moments in exchange for highlighting the comedy.

Distractingly, latecomers were brought in throughout the first 30 minutes of the play during the transitions. Given the limited seating of the Fruit, it would have been worth having a no-late-comers policy.

As incredible as is the script of Eclipsed, the regional premiere fell short of the play’s intended impact. There seems to be still quite a way to go before the Women’s Theatre Festival can produce a play like Eclipsed with the intended results. In the end, the production team and actors appeared to be performing a totally different play than the one the audience watched. A bit more time, less challenging scripts, and better use of the venues would likely see more fruitful results from the Festival’s offerings in the future. The market demands it!

Eclipsed continues through Sunday, August 5. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.