NEW YORK (AP) -- The real achievement of "Ruined," Lynn Nottage's powerful new drama, is that it gives a heartbreakingly human face to monumental tragedy.

A harrowing tale set against the backdrop of an African civil war, the play, which opened Tuesday at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I, creates a parade of memorable portraits, people surviving — or not — in the most brutal of environments.

At the center of Nottage's story is an earth mother named Mama Nadi, the practical proprietor of a brothel and bar in a small Congolese mining town. She's sort of an African Mother Courage, willing to make money off men of various military persuasions who visit her establishment for a good time. But they have to empty their guns of ammunition before they are served in her oasis of seeming tranquility.

While the political is never far from the surface, it is the personal that mostly concerns Nottage, particularly Mama Nadi and the young women who work for her. They are an affecting group, superbly played by several exceptionally fine actresses.

Saidah Arrika Ekulona is a domineering Mama. Outwardly gruff, she has built up a series of walls against connecting with others. Not even the attentions of Christian, a gentlemanly traveling salesman played by Russell Gebert Jones, can get her to go beyond a little flirting.

For Mama, survival comes first, particularly if it will bring a profit. And that survival means staying above the fray. Not getting involved with either side, or, what is more important, according to Nottage, not taking a moral stand when the situation demands a decision.

But survival has a price for her girls, most notably Sophie and Salima. Sophie, portrayed with a grave inner calm by the lovely Condola Rashad, has been "ruined." She's broken in body but manages to maintain a dignity in the face of constant degradation.

Salima adapts more readily to the horror around her, the steady arrival of soldiers and rebels whose violent natures are not as easily checked at the door like the ammo in those firearms. As played by the diminutive Quincy Tyler Bernstine, she exudes an almost unbearable sadness, a sorrow that comes to life theatrically in a devastating description of her young child's death.

Nottage, author of such accomplished and diverse works as "Intimate Apparel" and "Fabulation," walks a fine line here. She never allows the drama to veer into soap opera or sermonette. Her dialogue is direct, yet oddly poetic. She's helped by director Kate Whoriskey's vivid, music-driven production, first seen late last year at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.

Act 2 wanders a bit, and the play could use some trimming. But despite the horrors that snake through the lives of these women, Nottage's heroine doesn't end up in total desolation. In fact, there's a surprisingly upbeat if not exactly optimistic coda. It sends the audience out with a renewed faith in the ability of the human spirit to endure.