Lebanon-born, French-raised Quebec-resident Wajdi Mouawad’s intensely personal, poetic style has proved highly popular in France and Quebec. The original version of this play, “Incendies,” has received over 100 French-language productions, and the playwright has been named a Chevalier des Artes et des Lettres by the French government. With this adaptation of the drama for Tarragon Theater, titled “Scorched,” he may well have found his breakthrough into the English-language market.
A supple translation by Linda Gaboriau and a highly effective production by Richard Rose are two of the ingredients that make this version work so well. Add the full-out contribution of a highly committed cast and it’s easy to see why the end result is so powerful.
While Mouawad has set his play in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, it’s hard not to think of his native Lebanon while watching the events onstage. But he’s careful to avoid specific political references, and the ultimate result is a universal statement on the folly of race- and religion-driven wars rather than an indictment of any single people or place.
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The play moves restlessly back and forth over the past 50 years, sometimes existing in three time frames simultaneously. In fact, the leading character, Nawal, is played by three different actresses. A reading of her will sets the action in motion. The old woman (Nicola Lipman) demands that her twin children, Simon (Sergio Di Zio) and Janine (Sophie Goulet), return to her homeland to find the father they long thought dead and the older brother they never knew they had.
In the course of their search, they learn about their mother’s history as a revolutionary and uncover some truly unsettling things about their own origins. The play’s final discoveries suggest Greek tragedy, and it’s a tribute to Mouawad’s writing that he’s able to prevent it all from seeming melodramatic.
Although “Scorched” is relentlessly serious in subject, its tone is leavened by two factors that bring to mind earlier French theater masters. Mouawad frequently writes in a poetic vein not unlike that of Jean Giraudoux, finding a bleak beauty in the darkest moments.
And, with a tip of the hat to Jean Anouilh, he knows how to create moments of memorable comedy. The character of Alphonse (Alon Nashman), the notary public who serves as executor of Nawal’s will, is a beautifully conceived figure, sprouting malapropisms at every turn (“You’re stuck between the devil and the blue Danube”), while radiating a sense of optimism that helps mitigate the play’s darker moments.
On designer Graeme S. Thomson’s sculpted-sandpit set, Rose stages everything with fluidity and power, moving us through the decades with assurance. He is aided by a superb cast.
As the three Nawals, Janick Hebert is heartbreakingly innocent as the youngest, Kelli Fox earnestly driven as the midlife revolutionary and Lipman shattering as the destroyed older woman.
Di Zio and Goulet handle the torturous journey of Nawal’s children with great sensitivity, while Alex Poch-Goldin, Valerie Buhagiar and David Fox are impressive in a variety of roles. Nashman comes close to stealing the show as Alphonse, making the most (but not too much) of his welcome humor, while providing the humanist underpinning that offers some hope at the final curtain.
“Scorched” is a difficult, demanding work, but it introduces a playwright with an important voice to the English-language theater. Attention, as Arthur Miller once said, must be paid.