“Scorched” creeps up on you slowly, and before you know it, you find yourself simultaneously terrified, engrossed, impassioned and queasy. The play finds a jarring start in an elaborate set that doesn’t seem to belong in any particular place, where Simon (Babak Tafti) and Janine (Annie Purcell) make an uncomfortable visit to the notary Alphonse (David Strathairn, “Good Night and Good Luck”) to hear their mother’s will. The pair stands still for seemingly unending minutes while Alphonse, in an almost authentic Québécois accent, tries desperately to lighten the mood with desultory conversation and malapropisms. It’s disorienting, but this makes sense—losing a parent is just that—and it’s a subtle beginning to a complex build-up of stories.
The pair’s mother, Nawal, has stipulated in her will that her children must each perform Herculean tasks of delivering letters to unknown relatives in her home country. Simon must track down their father; Janine must track down their older brother. Once complete, they can engrave her name on her tombstone and receive an all-important last letter from her to them, perhaps with an explanation of why she didn’t speak a word in the five years leading up to her death.
Nawal was a Canadian immigrant from an unnamed Middle Eastern country, and her children have written her off as an anachronistic, out of touch, unloving and crazy. As we get glimpses of her past, we see how visceral and immediate their mother’s life was.
Her children are a stark contrast to her. Simon is a boxer, uninterested in family history or woes, concerned only about the advancement of his own career; Janine is a cold mathematician. The contrast is important: it’s the difference between the luxury of the West, the wars in the Middle East and the difference between the new and old generations. So we can forgive the playwright Wajdi Mouawad for the ridiculous mathematics talk, which reduces Janine to someone only capable of thinking in alienating mathematical metaphors—graph theory is haphazardly thrown in to little effect—and is insulting to any intellectual in the sciences with an aptitude for social interaction.
Their mission sends them off on a long trek trying to unravel the mystery of who and where their father and brother are. In the process, they uncover their mother’s history: her life in the war-torn Middle East, her ascent from poverty and despair, her revolutionary ideas and the horrors she faced because of them.
It’s a play about methodically retracing steps. We watch stories—all related to their mother’s—from years past unfold on stage alongside the current journey of our characters. Janine and Simon retread their mother’s path: visiting relevant places and retelling her story. We watch Simon and Janine retread the same ground physically, and in so doing, revise their own notion of history and of their own story. Director Carey Perloff’s blocking is deliberate, meticulous and so natural that you can easily miss all the meaning contained therein.
The set is beautifully designed by Scott Bradley to be an abstract piece: evoking all kinds of emotions and seamlessly doubling for contradictory places. It works just as well as a peaceful Canadian city, a quaint small Middle-Eastern town and the streets of a war-torn nation. As the play progresses, the audience is forced to revise their notion of what the set represents and what it means to be in different parts of the stage. There are obstacles across the set—rocks, trellises, etc.—to help create the illusion of trekking as the characters weave between them.
The journey takes on a mythic quality, like something out of Greek tragedy. The pair meets a wizened, wise old man (Apollo Dukakis) who talks about people with monikers like “The Woman Who Sings.” The same actor plays Nawal’s aged grandmother, whose invaluable love and advice set the course for her life’s journey. The children and their mother work towards achieving catharsis, every event taking on new meaning as the story unravels. And we have Alphonse, the fool and the Westerner prattling on at intervals to lighten the mood and provide comic relief, which also becomes increasingly meaningful.
“Scorched” is so rich in themes, characters and plot threads that you can imagine people dubbing the play as representative of “life” itself. It’s about the stories we tell and the ones we can’t; about family, connection and disconnection; about the futility of war and the impossibility of fighting it; about love; about finding your place within the world and between cultures that often times clash. Wajdi Mouawad’s play is ambitious but unassuming. It’s been translated from the French “Incendies” (which was also made into an Academy-Award-winning film), and no meaning was lost in the process. “Scorched” is the kind of play that will change on you with repeat viewings because there’s so much information you could keep unpacking—thanks to the script, the nuanced acting, the thoughtful blocking and the wonderful set design.