It is often said that “the first casualty of war is truth.” But I would argue that the first casualty is almost always women. And should you need further evidence of the phenomenon I offer as “Exhibit A” one of the more harrowing plays to be written on the subject — British playwright Cordelia Lynn’s “Lela & Co.”

‘LELA & CO.’
Highly recommended
When: Through Aug. 19
Where: Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn
Tickets: $25-$35 reserved seats
Info: www.steeptheatre.com
Run time: 1 hour and 40 minutes

The play, which debuted at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2015 (when Lynn was just 26), is now receiving its U.S. premiere at Steep Theatre where, under the volcanic direction of Robin Witt, actress Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel is giving an unforgettable tour de force performance as Lela, and is aided and abetted by Chris Chmelik, who puts an aptly chilling edge on all of the play’s mostly abusive male characters.

Lynn, the recipient of the Royal Court’s 2017 Pinter Commission (named in honor of Harold Pinter, on whose menacing style she has worked a decidedly feminine spin), clearly is a remarkable talent. And her “Lela & Co.” is easily the most horrific portrait of female entrapment and commodification since Chicago Shakespeare Theater presented Scottish theater-maker Cora Bissett’s “Roadkill.”

As you enter Steep Theatre you instantly become part of designer Joe Schermoly’s genteel living room set, with cabaret seating surrounding a small, square stage that supplies a chilling degree of intimacy. Welcoming the audience is Lela, a petite, energetic, feverishly verbal and guileless young woman in a pretty floral frock who delivers an exuberant description of the mountainous landscape of her homeland, and the distinctive personalities of her grandmother, mother, aunts and sisters. It suggests a mostly happy family. But then, in a disturbing foreshadowing of events, we witness the terrifying volatility of her father, who demeans her, and beats her for possibly sneaking a taste of the expensive cake he bought for her 13th birthday. Her ability to deny his cruelty, and somehow survive it, will lay the groundwork for the rest of her teenage years and beyond.

Chris Chmelik (left) and Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel in the Steep Theatre production of Cordelia Lynn’s play, “Lela & Co.” | Gregg Gilman

By the time Lela is 15, her sexy, upwardly mobile older sister has married Jay, a successful, educated man with the instincts and covert manipulations of a pervert. She visits her sister and brother-in-law at a resort “across the border” (though never specified, it could be in Bosnia or Syria or countless other places). And before she knows it two things happen: She meets and marries Jay’s business associate, something of a creepy doppelganger, and a war breaks out. Then, before the naive but curious Lela fully understands what has happened to her, she is locked inside her husband’s house and turned into a sex slave. She has become a thriving wartime asset for him. And as soldiers and “foreign peacekeepers” flood the country, the abuse to which she is repeatedly subjected (suggested in something of a ballet of horrors) is a long nightmare, suggesting the fate of countless women caught up in war zones, refugee camps and trafficking operations around the globe. Ironically,  the most devastating blow comes from the young soldier she thinks might rescue her. Kindness can be the real killer in such situations.

Yet somehow Lela survives all this, and more, and the play turns out to be the “truthful” story she has long suppressed, but now feels compelled to tell to an audience of strangers. A triumphant catharsis? That would be far too sentimental an appraisal. For while Lela survives, the play’s brilliantly written and acted final moments reveal things that might shake you even further.

Gonzalez-Cadel, who was born and educated in Buenos Aires, Argentina, (and whose many Chicago credits include a recent appearance in Teatro Vista’s “Havana Madrid” at Steppenwolf), is remarkable in a role that is both a grueling emotional and physical marathon. Her acting is so natural, and her connection with the audience so exquisitely finessed, that you feel guilty for not saving her.

The male characters are examples of some of the worst of their breed (men, Lela tells us, are responsible for everything that happens between birth and death, those bookends of life that are women’s work). And Chmelik, a gaunt figure with a shaved head captures the coldness of spirit in all of them, warming up just enough to capture one panic-ridden soldier.

“Lela & Co.” is far more than an anti-war play in which money is tagged as the root of all evil. Rather, Lynn stares straight into the heart of darkness, suggesting the very worst human beings are capable of doing to each other. It is not a pretty picture, but it is quite the theatrical grenade.