Scorched, SF

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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By Wajdi Mouawad
Translated by Linda Gaboriau
Directed by Carey Perloff
American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco
Feb. 16–March 12, 2012

“Scorched” is as much a puzzle as a play. When Canadian twins, a brother and sister of vague Middle Eastern descent, are forced to unravel the tangled skein that is the life story of their cold and distant mother, one clue leads to another until the shocking truth emerges at the very end. As a puzzle it is fascinating, if somewhat implausible. As a play it is fraught with themes of war, family, friendship, separation, love and loss. It’s a little too long, a little too much, but it’s hard to turn your eyes away.

Lebanese-born Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad has taken the real-life silence of his parents, who fled the conflict in their native land but never spoke of it, and woven it into a complex tapestry of horror, defeat and heroism. Although the setting is evocative of Lebanon, where more than 100,000 people were killed and another million displaced during a bloody 15-year civil war, Mouawad models his tragedy along Sophoclean lines, he has said. Conflict is universal, as is the resulting trauma that shapes the lives of survivors and can echo down through generations.

Originally written in French, the play premiered, first in France and then Montreal, in 2003. Under the original name, “Incendies,” it was made into a film which was nominated for a 2010 Academy Award. The English adaptation, by Linda Gaboriau, is highly poetic in parts, very vernacular in others and, in the case of film star David Strathairn, who plays a legal functionary saddled with the task of implementing the mother’s peculiar will, very funny.

Strathairn (“Good Night and Good Luck”) is the one ray of light in this extremely dark drama. Dr. Alphonse Lebel, his mild-mannered, good-hearted notary, peppers his speech with mangled aphorisms and misplaced words worthy of a Mrs. Malaprop. You look forward with glee to his next pronouncement but, unfortunately, his is a supporting role, and they are too few and far between. Also outstanding is the always-excellent Omozé Idehenre as a refugee and friend to the twins’ mother in her youth. Alas, hers also is a supporting role.

The twins, played by Annie Purcell and Babak Tafti, are withdrawn, silent as their late mother at times, outspoken in their frustration and fury at others. It’s a little hard to care about what happens to them. Nawal, the mother, played by Marjan Neshat as a young woman and Jacqueline Antaramian in age, fares better. Neshat infuses the young Nawal with urgency and Antaramian is beautifully dignified in her indignation as the older woman. There is a supporting cast that doubles — sometimes confusingly — as grandparents, wise men, militia, guides, janitors, what have you. Director Carey Perloff keeps it all together admirably but the playwright has stacked the deck with too many cards.

It is no easy task set before the twins: to piece together an unknown life from the scantiest of clues. What emerges is a complex tale of feminism and friendship, bravery and abject defeat with an ending that you certainly didn’t see coming. But what you are left with essentially is less an involvement with the characters and more of the puzzle and its solution. And I’m not entirely sure that is what makes a play.

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