Syracuse Stage’s useful program notes for Wajdi Mouawad’s mind-blowing Scorched include Joseph Whelan’s cogent and lucid account of the Lebanese civil war from 1975 to 1990. Only no mention of Lebanon appears anywhere in the play’s nearly three hours of dialogue. Opposing sides in that war were composed of diverse and disparate forces usually labeled “Christian” and “Muslim” in the Western press. We never hear anything about religion or politics, and it takes 45 minutes before one character blesses herself with the sign of the cross.
Instead, Lebanese-Canadian playwright Mouawad has written a wrenching drama that invites comparison with Sophocles and Shakespeare, with touches of Alfred Hitchcock. In the hands of director Marcela Lorca the way characters move tells you more of what you need to know than what is projected in floating scrims or what is said in dialogue.
If you were unaware of what a worldwide phenomenon Scorched has become, Syracuse Stage is catching you up. Mouawad, a resident of Montreal, premiered the original version under its French title, Incendies, in 2007. It won several awards but was otherwise a slow roller. Director Denis Villeneuve’s 2010 film adaptation, under the French title, ran an hour shorter, cut long speeches, and was nominated for an Academy Award as best foreign language film. Since then the stage work has conquered the globe, appearing in theaters on all continents that have them. Syracuse Stage’s mounting is one of six productions in the United States this season.
Much of the action is taken up with an impossible-sounding quest narrative. Two grown twins, Janine (Soraya Broukhim), an earnest mathematics graduate student, and her surly brother Simon (Dorien Makhloghi), an aspiring boxer, are reading the will of their late mother, Nawal, with a notary, Alphonse (Tuck Milligan). The only comic character, Alphonse speaks with an endearing Canadian accent and blithely fractures idioms: “We’re beginning to see the train at the end of the tunnel.” Still, he knew Nawal and is resolute in demanding that her wishes be carried out. He gives each of them a sealed letter, not to be opened, that must be delivered to an earlier child, a previously unknown brother still living in their native country.
Simon, who speaks of his mother with contempt, wants none of it, but Janine, spurred on by the discovery of a cache of Nawal’s voice cassettes, returns to the old country. The mother’s memoirs do not spell out everything, but they provide leads for Janine when she lands in the former war zone and then reports back to Canada via cell phone.
The beginnings of the story sound like Romeo and Juliet. The young Nawal (Nadine Malouf) had fallen in love with a charismatic swain from the other side, Wahab (René Millán), and is pregnant by him. Her stern mother Jihane (Soraya Broukhim) demands that the infant son, the product of intercourse with the hated others, be taken away. Is he one of us or one of them?
Readers will quickly note, as audience members do with hesitation, that the same actress playing Janine in cold but serene Montreal, is also playing her own grandmother in the sunny but dangerous old country. With a rapid change of costume and a striking body set, each new character is easy to distinguish, even though we do not forget. All players, except for Nadine Malouf as Nawal, take more than one role. Malouf brings a Levantine name and physiognomy, but other players appear to be of other ethnicities. This is director Lorca’s way of saying that the war zone in Scorched might look like Lebanon or Syria, but it is not unlike other countries where frenzied, internecine bloodletting—with torture and rape—has taken place in the last 30 years, like Bosnia, Sri Lanka or Rwanda.
Action zigs and zags through about 40 scenes, here, there and everywhere, but the pace never slacks. Scenic designer John Arnone’s set, ingeniously lighted by Christopher Akerlind, is anchored by two stark, leafless trees (one is repeated on the program cover) that allow for miracles of transformation. In Mouawad’s play, much of Nawal’s story that is told in her quest is either oblique or flat-out wrong. Perhaps it’s driven by the post-modern assertion that texts— words—are not reliable. As viewers are always following the thread because director Lorca presents so much of the drama physically often this can mean projections of buildings and landscapes on floating screens that can be yanked away in a second.
Lorca, fondly remembered at Syracuse Stage for her handling of Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change (February 2012) is, additionally, a movement specialist at Minnesota’s Guthrie Theater. As in expressive movement, often approaching dance.
In the most impressive scene in the three hours, Alphonse in Montreal is relating that the elder Nawal avoided riding buses. He is interrupted by the loud rat-tat-tat of a nearby air hammer on a construction site. That sound morphs into that of a machine gun in Nawal’s homeland (yes, a device borrowed from Hitchcock) and we see what looks like the side of a bus.
But instead of clouds of dust or cups of strawberry juice, she deploys a half-dozen ghostly figures wrapped all in white who rise above the carnage.
Scorched marks the triumphal professional return of Australian-born Nadine Malouf, a leading player in several Syracuse University Drama Department productions, including Urinetown (2006), Sweeney Todd (2007) and Steel Pier (2008). Here she carries perhaps 20 percent of the total dialogue with steely resolve. A mountain of humiliation and heartbreak cannot sunder her. The coruscating passion, especially in some longer speeches, puts a heavy burden on actress Socorro Santiago to keep up as the elder Nawal.
All the other players take more than one role, impressive for their intensity as well as their variety. Tall, lean René Millán first gives us Wahab the seductive charmer, but also horrifies us with the bloodlust of Nihad the murderer. His Mephistophelian dance in which his automatic weapon doubles as an air guitar, and he envisions himself as a rock star assassin and sniper, will stick with audiences for many months to come. His opposite number is Philip Hernández as the deliberate and plain-spoken Chamseddine. He answers the riddle of Janine and Simon’s quest. Joseph Conrad would have called it, “The horror! The horror!” Scorched is a landmark show for Syracuse Stage. People will talk about it for years.
This production runs through Nov. 10.