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A CurtainUp Review
By Marge Murray
Though already much staged worldwide, this is only its second United States production. Written in French under the title Incendies by the Lebanese-Canadian playwright, Wajdi Mouawad Wilma Theater production is nimbly directed by its co-artistic director, Blanka Zizka, and ably translated by Linda Gaboriau
The story is structured as a family mystery within the context of civil war. The story unwinds in true Oedipal fashion like one of the shrouds or birthing blankets used throughout. The setting is an unnamed Middle Eastern, awash in mayhem. The action emanates from a notary's office where the death and last wishes of an apparently disengaged family matriarch are explained by the notary, Alphonse Label (ably and wittily played by Benjamin Lloyd) to Nawal, a deceased mother's twin children, Simon (Ariiel Shafir) and Janine (Leila Buck). Nawal, who will eventually be played by three different actresses at various stages of her traumatic life. Simon and Janine, have differing responses both to their mother's life and to her death. Simon, an amateur boxer, storms around the stage cursing and screaming about his mother's 5-year unexplained silence and general neglect of her children. In contrast, his sister, a cerebral mathematician, seems almost indifferent to the events going on in the notary's office. She will, however, become the compelling force behind the double narratives of Nawal and her children. Splayed across the stage from her youth to old age, Nawal's life is illustrated both for the benefit of the audience and the children. The story of Nawal at 14 to 19 (Aadya Bedi) is that of a young mother to give up her love child, who leaves her family and village to pursue her dream of an education but continues to search for her son.
The narrative moves back and forth between Nawal's life and Janine's, as she roams about her mother's country, filling in the silences from tapes made by her mother's nurse. As she discovers many truths about her mother and her own heritage, she persuades Simon to become part of the journey. The journey also brings on stage this middle-aged Nawal (Jacqueline Antaramian, a revolutionary known as "the woman who sings," and who experienced unspeakable carnage at the hands of a wild assassin (J. Paul Nicholas, who also plays the mother's nurse) and who inexplicably loved Elizabeth Taylor. Eventually, the old Nawal (a moving Janis Dardaris) speaks.
This tale of revenge and mystery is humanized and leavened with surprising humor which is supplied by the notary Alphonse. Set design, lighting, and music illuminate the family issues and political disorientation and help propel the plot.
Scorched is a complex and thoroughly contemporary play. Though not a light evening of theater, it is provocative, enthralling, and often chilling. Like Herman Melville at the end of his short story, "Bartleby, the Scrivner", it leaves us whispering "Ah, humanity!" As Majdi Mouawad breaks Nawal's silence, he speaks of the unspeakable.