Wajdi Mouawad’s Scorched takes on a narrative that could fill a 2 inch-thick novel, and does so with a cinematic velocity and volume that would be at home in a Hollywood film or TV series. To sidestep the question of whether theater was the most appropriate medium for this beast, the A.C.T. production under the direction of Carey Perloff steps up to the plate well enough. Scorched is built to delight lovers of straightforward storytelling, in particular those who like their shocks overt.
The play follows the quest of twin siblings Simon (Babak Tafti) and Janine (Annie Purcell) to unravel the mystery surrounding their recently deceased mother, Nawal (Marjan Neshat, Jacqueline Antaramian) – a woman known to them only as an impenetrable immigrant with a brick where her heart should have been, who one day resolved to stop speaking entirely.
Her “actuary and friend,” the mild-mannered and endearingly off-kilter Alphonse Lebel (David Strathairn), implores the children to obey Nawal’s dying wishes: that they go to the middle east to track down the father and brother they did not know existed, and in so doing discover their shadowy family past.
The story in Nawal’s silence turns out to be remarkably epic and suitably devastating. Born into poverty and violent intra-national conflict (the play keeps things vague, but a small amount of digging reveals the circumstance to be Lebanon’s bloody fifteen-year civil war, from 1975 – 1990), a series of trying, tragic circumstances mold her into a driven intellectual and militant rebel, the combination of which eventually lands her a horrifying term of imprisonment and torture.
The play shifts between Nawal’s story and the story of her children uncovering it with an almost-seamless agility owing, perhaps most of all, to an impressively complex and versatile set design by Scott Bradley. A middle eastern scene caught somewhere between ruin and arrested construction, its surreal building support slabs, bridges and backdrops glide in and out, along with the brisk actors, to carry forward the cascade of short scenes and hop scotching temporalities.
In its content, Scorched welds levity and horror with an intentionally disturbing seamlessness (prepare yourself for an execution performed to Supertramp), and the story hinges upon an twist that even a Nihilist-leaning Freud would find shocking.
The meta-narrative takeaways intended by this cruel subject matter are clear enough – the nature of conflict, family, love and hate. Unfortunately, the demands of the narrative prevent any of these from getting quite the depth of treatment they warrant.
Simon and Janine remain archetypal at most, their relationship hashed out with a few symbolic strokes. Twenty-five years of Nawal’s life unfolds at an almost unfathomable speed (as they must – the play is nearly 3 hours already), leaving her story feeling summary.
The very structure of the play, the higher narrative viewpoint of which supersedes that of the individual characters’, sets the characters’ hardships, horrors and triumphs at some remove. As a result, where a more micro-focused play might have broke ground, Scorched is only able to offer a street-level view, with all the enticements and drawbacks of a bestselling novel or cable TV series, crammed into the stage.