A funny moment in “Eclipsed,” a drama about young women in war-torn Liberia in 2003, has some characters rifling through a bag of used clothes they’ve been given, playfully sizing up each piece.
The lighthearted scene is also among the few to which Westerners can directly relate in this eye-opening Tony Award nominee written by Danai Gurira (an actress of Zimbabwean descent on TV in “The Walking Dead”) onstage at the Curran.
Yet the women are leading truly desperate lives, stuck in a ratty, bullet-ridden shack in a rebel army camp, beholden to an unseen commander, often raped, and known by number, not name.
South African director Liesl Tommy and five extraordinary actors shed light and compassion on what, to Western audiences, is a seemingly unfathomable situation. It’s a sad, vivid, touching and enthralling portrait.
Initially on the scene are Wife No. 1 (Stacey Sargeant), the no-nonsense oldest (in her 20s, but she’s not even sure of her age), who’s in charge. Wife No. 3 (Joniece Abbott-Pratt), is pregnant and focused on getting her hairstyle right. The Girl (Ayesha Jordan), a teen new to the compound, is No. 4, the current favorite of the commander, who beckons her away (to be raped) via a flashing light. When she returns, she washes between her legs.
Unlike the others, she is literate, and she entertains them when a battered copy of a Bill Clinton biography comes into their possession. All three are amused by their storytelling sessions, gossiping about the big man from America and Monica Lewinsky, his No. 2.
Additional strains at the compound are revealed when No. 2 (Adedola Role), who has chosen a different life, shows up, with bedazzled jeans, hair extensions, a gift of a bag of rice, and a big gun.
The drama crescendos as The Girl is taken in by No. 2’s grandstanding — “We are fighting the monkey Charles Taylor; he’s the enemy” — and her justification for violence when “the system is war.”
A glimmer of hope emerges with the arrival of Rita (Akosua Busia), a smart businesswoman on a peace-seeking mission whose tenderness makes an impression, particularly on No. 1.
All five actresses are remarkable in this visceral drama, enhanced by Clint Ramos’ Tony-winning costumes and sets, Jen Schriever’s lighting and Broken Chord’s sound and music.
On Thursday’s opening night, an appearance by Gurira and Tommy following a lengthy standing ovation from the young, diverse audience — in which Gurira read the names of missing girls in Africa — only added to the undeniable power of “Eclipsed.”
Where: Curran, 445 Geary St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes March 19
Tickets: $29 to $140