Wajdi Mouawad’s ‘Scorched’: A.C.T. introduces bay area audiences to an important world playwright

(Charles Kruger)

This reviewer is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

“Scorched” by Wajdi Mouawad, translated by Linda Gaboriau, produced by A.C.T. Director: Carey Perloff. Scenery: Scott Bradley. Costumes: Sandra Woodall. Lighting: Russell H. Champa. Sound: Jake Rodriguez. Projection Design: Alexander V. Nichols. Dramaturg: Beatrice Basso. Assistant Director: Emily Hoffman.

Alhonse Lebel/Doctor: David Strathairn. Simon/Guide: Babak Tafti. Janine: Annie Purcell. Ralph/Antoine/Militiaman/Photographer: Manoel Felciano. Nawal at 14-40: Marjan Neshat. Wahab/Nihad: Nick Gabriel. Jihane/Nawal at 60/Adessamad: Jacqueline Antaramian. Nazira/Janitor/Malak/Chamseddine: Apollo Dukakis. Elhame/Sawda: Omozé Idehenre.

Quebecois playwright Wajdi Mouawad is unafraid to tackle the big subjects. Six-year-old Wajdi and his family fled Beirut in April, 1975, as a result of the Lebanese Civil War, first to Paris and then to Quebec where he lost his mother to cancer when he was only a teenager. In interviews, he has spoken elegantly of the silence of his family about this horrendous past. The past was gone, like a scorched landscape after a sweeping fire. “It was this silence,” Mouawad has said, “that I have tried to name.”

Writing out of a difficult personal past, Mouawad has written a difficult and personal play. It explores the family past of two Canadian twins, children of a recently-deceased Middle Eastern mother who never spoke to them of her youth and from whom they have been estranged. In the course of the play, we learn how she was effected by war and torture and unspeakable terror and the secrets of the family’s past.

Unfolding like a dream, the play holds echoes of Greek tragedy in its elegant shell, as well as suggesting critical commentary upon the very nature of war and suffering. As in a dream, the story is never one hundred percent clear. The audience is compelled to struggle with this material with the same confusion as it must have been lived. One is at times disoriented yet still deeply moved with tears, laughter and horror. Mouawad demands a lot of his audience; one must accept uncertainty and contradiction to attain the eventual reward of a profound emotional release—a true catharsis.

Academy Award nominee David Strathairn as Alphonse Lebel and Babak Tafti as Simon in A.C.T.'s West coast premiere of "Scorched" by Wajdi Mouawad. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

In her program notes, director Carey Perloff indicates that the actors — with roots in many different parts of the world — approached this remarkable script in an unusually intimate way. She writes, “During the first day of rehearsal, we all went around the table and told our familiy stories—stories of escape and suffering, of rescue and survival .”

Clearly, this company has taken the play deeply to heart and presented it with unusual personal commitment. It is an ambitious undertaking.

The acting is excellent throughout, but special note must be made of David Strathairn‘s excellent performance as Alphonse Lebel, the notary public who was a friend of the twins’ late mother, cares about her secret history, and guides the young people in their excavation of the past. He does so while providing delightful comic relief with an endless litany of malapropisms. It is a lovely bit of theatrical fun, nicely balancing the seriousness of the drama.

With Scorched, A.C.T. makes a strong claim to the front rank of creative experimentation in San Francisco, introducing a major world playwright to the Bay Area in a memorable and moving production.

Highly recommended. Scorched continues through March 11, 2012. For further information, click here.

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