The artists of Forum Theatre are wonderfully accomplished folks. Even without taking their modest budget and ticket prices into consideration, Forum is one of the best theaters in Washington. Their Angels in America, Part I – Millennium Approaches was the best play I saw in Washington last season, and their astonishing Last Days of Judas Iscariot was the best show I saw in the season before that. DC Theatre Scene readers agreed with me about both choices in our annual audience poll. It’s safe to say that Forum puts on some of the best shows in town.
Scorched isn’t one of them.
Look, we all understand that war is hell, and that a civil war is a special kind of hell. We think of our own Civil War as having been fought for lofty principals, but for the grunt in the field (and we can tell by their letters home, thousands of which are still extant) it was an exercise in shooting another guy in the face. In war, men debase themselves, commit hideous acts – kill innocent civilians and keep their fingers as trophies, say – and slaughter our better angels along with the enemy. The Lebanese Civil War was worse than most.
But – jeez Louise! – playwright Wajdi Mouawad so hammers his audience with detail after detail of the depredations of the Lebanese Civil War, followed by clumsily-delivered commentary, that not even the surefooted rendering given by the canny Forum cast can deliver us from the weight of this three-hour production.
This is particularly frustrating because it is clear from the production that Mouawad is an exceptionally gifted playwright, whose beautiful use of language cunningly complements his fine character development. He lays down a compelling narrative question with great skill, and it is powerful enough to impel us through the entire play. If only he had learned to shut up at the right moments, this would be a near-perfect play.
Alas, he has not. Here, in outline, is his story: Nawal (Dana Levanovsky as a young woman; Amy McWilliams in her middle years; and Rena Cherry Brown as an older woman) has lived in silence for five years. At the moment before her death she says – “Now that we’re together, everything feels better.” The moment passes, and Nawal’s children Simon (Alexander Strain), an amateur boxer of uncertain skills, and Janine (Rachel Beauregard), an abstracted mathematician, are gathered in the office of Quebec notary Alphonse Lebel; (Scott McCormick; a Quebecois notary public has a broad license to practice non-litigative law, much like an English solicitor). Lebel reads them their mother’s will: it commands them to each take a letter – the daughter, to their father; and the son, to their brother, both living in Lebanon, where Nawal spent most of her life. Only after these letters are delivered can their mother be at peace.
This is, thus, a mission story, in which Simon and Janine must find relatives they had hitherto believed dead or nonexistent. Mouawad attacks his story from three directions. We see the young Nawal, pregnant with the child of a lover (Strain) forbidden to her for some reason never fully explained, but implicitly having to do with ethnicity or religion or some similar variation of tribalism. We see her set out in the war-ravaged country, accompanied by her friend Sawda (Tina Ghandchilar), as she tries to find the son taken away from her at birth. At the same time, we watch the separate journeys of Janine and Simon (accompanied by Lebel) as they tromp through contemporary Lebanon in an effort to piece together Nawal’s story.
There is a sensational crime – sensational, but wildly coincidental and vaguely familiar – at the climax. Simon learns it as he sits alone with the rebel leader Chamseddine (Joseph Thornhill). It is a powerful, cathartic moment, and it is res ipsa loquitor – a thing which speaks for itself. But apparently not to Mr. Mouawad, for he has Nawal make a speech about it before a war crimes tribunal, in which she tells the criminal to his face what a dreadful thing he has done; and then addresses this terrible crime again in the two letters which she has her children deliver.
Scorched was the product of a great deal of research on Mouawad’s part, and the play has a whiff of academia to it – first he explains what he’s going to say, then he says it, and then he explains what he said. The ruined climax is simply the most egregious example; there is another part where Nawal makes a beautiful speech against violence (McWilliams does it full justice) immediately before announcing her plan to assassinate a paramilitary leader. And the horrors of war are described in great detail, including a passage which will be familiar to anyone who has read (or read about) “Sophie’s Choice.” In short, there is a fine-two hour story stuffed in this gas giant of a three-hour play.
Forum does about as well as can be done with it; the cast is uniformly good, and McWilliams, Strain and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (who plays, among others, a manic sharpshooter who takes gruesome photos of his victims) are excellent. Oddly, Mouawad’s most complex, and carefully drawn, character is a secondary one: the notary Lebel, a man constantly at war between his sharp emotions and his good manners. Lebel is prone to amusing malapropisms (He observes at the play’s outset that his office “wasn’t the Taj Nepal” and later optimistically announces that he sees “the train at the end of the tunnel”) and the veteran McCormick gives him a knowing portrayal. Simon’s fight sequences – his opponent is never shown – seem absolutely authentic; Strain and Fight Choreographer Cliff Williams III deserve considerable credit. And Forum has juiced up its technical elements; the lighting (Brian Engel) and sound (Christopher Baine) are first-rate.
But in the end, a good production cannot save a play so full of excess. At one point, Janine listens to tapes full of her mother’s silence, recorded secretly by her mother’s nurse (Thornhill). It is a reminder that in moments of profound emotional impact, the clutter of explanatory words detracts from the effect. I only wish that Mouawad had applied this insight when he wrote this play.
By Wajdi Mouawad, translated from the French by Linda Gaboriau
Directed by Michael Dove
Produced by Forum Theatre (in Partnership with Round House Theatre)
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Forum Theatre’s production of Scorched plays thru Oct 23, 2010 at Round House Silver Spring, Silver Spring, MD.
Click here for details, directions and tickets.
Nelson Pressley . Washington Post