A woman hardened by war takes a vow of silence in the Wilma’s new production.
The Wilma Theater is anything but tepid. When they fail, they do so spectacularly. When they succeed, it’s dazzling. Even by those standards, though, the Wilma’s production of Wajdi Mouawad’s brilliant play Scorched is astonishing.
Originally titled Incendies, the play was a monster hit in French-speaking countries with more than 100 productions (a French film version is also reportedly in the works). The Wilma’s production (which utilizes Linda Gaboriau’s English translation) is only the second in the United States.
Mouawad, a Lebanese-born playwright who now works in Canada, sets his story in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. An engaging notary (wonderfully played by Benjamin Lloyd) is explaining the specifics of a woman’s will to her children, Janine (Leila Buck) and Simon (Ariel Shafir). The woman, Nawal, spent her last five years in silence, and her final wishes are as mysterious as the life she led. Janine is supposed to deliver an envelope to a father the two believed was dead. Simon must deliver an envelope to a brother they never knew existed. Only when the tasks are completed can a marked headstone be placed on Nawal’s grave.
The play moves effortlessly between Janine and Simon’s quest to fulfill their mother’s wishes and Nawal’s own gripping story, which spans 50 years. Aadya Bedi, Jacqueline Antaramian and Janis Dardaris portray Nawal at different stages of her life, and they’re all terrific, especially Dardaris, who’s amazing as the elder Nawal.
We witness the birth of her first son, who’s immediately taken from the teenage Nawal and removed from the village. As the years pass, Nawal searches for her child in a nation ripped apart by a horrifying civil war. She’s joined by a refugee named Sawda (Jolly Abraham, in a lovely performance). Like most of the women in the region, Sawda is illiterate, and Nawal agrees to teach her to write if Sawda will teach her to sing. Moving from one refugee camp to the next, the friends encounter many atrocities and are eventually hardened by the war around them.
Mouawad does a masterful job of showing us a nation caught in an endless cycle of violence. War has become a way of life. The origins of the conflict have long been forgotten. Neighbors murder each other. Brothers and fathers kill each other with little regard about spilling the blood they share.
It sounds bleak and at times it is (childhood is described as “a knife stuck in the throat”). But the play also features a number of fascinating characters— including a ruthless sniper with a fondness for schmaltzy pop songs—and we’re inspired by the courage of the two women.
Although the war is never far from our minds, Mouawad’s play isn’t as much about war as family. In Scorched you can neither choose your family nor deny them. A horrifying discovery causes Nawal to fall into silence. Only by understanding her silence can Nawal’s children restore their mother’s voice.
Scorched is one of the finest modernizations of Greek tragedy you’re likely to see, with a purity that’s rare in contemporary theater. There are no contrivances in the twisting plot and director Blanka Zizka’s production has no unnecessary embellishments. Ola Maslik’s set design (a large, bare wooden platform with five chairs on either side) is simple but functional. Thom Weaver’s understated lighting is magnificent.
Boasting a theatrical imagination that recalls the work of Canadian writer/director/actor Robert Lepage, Mouawad’s story is a mythical play of epic proportions. A work of raw power, Scorched is delicately lyrical and unforgettable.
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