From stage to screen, once you’ve seen “Incendies,” the film, A.C.T.’s staged version, “Scorched,” falls Flat
One of my best friends is a librarian and I often hear about how a book is almost always much better, richer, than a movie adaptation. When a play is adapted into a movie, as is common these days, the play isn’t always better. A.C.T.’s production of Wajdi Mouawad’s play Scorched, which opened on February 22, 2012, is infinitely less moving than French-Canadian Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies, the film adaptation. The gut-wrenching drama coheres and resonates profoundly on screen, while A.C.T.’s stage version, directed by Carey Perloff, fails to mine the intense and shifting emotions at the heart of this haunting story. A.C.T.’s production suffers from poor casting, lackluster acting and other confusions, some of which might be worked through in subsequent performances. Thematically, the material is golden, a Greek tragedy for our time: you can’t choose your family and, try as you may, you can’t escape family either.
In Scorched, we meet twenty-something twins Janine (Annie Purcell) and Simon Marwan (Babak Tafti) in present-day Montreal, as they are being read the will of their late mother by notary Alphonse Lebel (David Strathairn ) who was also her employer near the time of her death and friend. He hands them letters addressed to a father they were told was dead and a brother they didn’t know existed, letters that their mother stipulated must be delivered before she can be given a proper burial. “Childhood is like a knife stuck in the throat that cannot be easily removed,” the notary says.
And so begins the unraveling of our assumptions about what we think we know about childhood, happiness, and the security of a family’s love. As the twins gradually discover the tortured history of their mother and of their own origins, that bizarre adage starts to resonate. Childhood isn’t simply being young; it’s also the experience of being someone’s child. For Janine and Simon, being the children of Nawal Marwan has been painful and her death is equally complex, leaving them with a world of questions. They’re sent off on an epic quest — first Jeanne, and later a far more reluctant Simon — to their mother’s homeland. The balance of the story unfolds in this barren and unnamed Middle Eastern land which has a history of Christan-Muslim violence much like that of Mouawad’s homeland, Lebanon, in the 1970s.
The story itself is a rich melding of drama, mystery, and war-time epic. As the twins slowly unearth how perversely their family history is tied to the region’s conflicts and violence, the narrative alternates between their present day investigation and their mother’s journeys and trials decades earlier.
Featured actor David Strathairn, as Alphonse Lebel, the notary entrusted with settling Nawal Marwan’s estate with the twins, gives such an affecting performance that he steals the dramatic thunder from Nawal Marwan’s tragic story and the twins’ evolving perspectives. The Emmy-award winning Strathairn, who rambles, spouts malapropisms right and left, and tries out several accents, comes off much like detective Monk, the endearing comedic TV detective played by Tony Shalhoub. Is he meant to evoke a holy fool who guides the twins to the truth? Who knows—but the alchemy feels very off given the weak performances of the other major characters and the serious emotional tenor of the play.
It is really the women who should be the dramatic focus. Nawal’s story at its core, despite its almost unbelievable twists, is representative of the universal struggle of women in war torn, repressive and male-dominated societies everywhere. The early love scenes between Marjan Neshat, Nawal from ages 14 through 40, and Nick Gabriel as her lover Wahab (a Muslim refugee), which should really hook us, are devoid of passion. As we see Nawal mature, we understand through dialogue, not her acting, how at odds she is with the perverse context into which she’s been inserted. Jacqueline Antaramian gives a very affecting performance as Nawal at 60 and earlier in the play as Nawal’s mother.
Challenging in its own right, play is further confused by A.C.T.’s casting choices—there are several actors who are playing many characters and a couple of characters that are being played by more than one actor and a couple of the characters were played by actors of the opposite gender. On top of that, some of the characters weren’t able to pull off consistent accents, particularly Omozé Idenhenre as Sawda, Nawal’s companion, who, on opening night, seemed to lapse in and out of various affectations. In the Word on Plays that accompanies this production, dramaturg Beatrice Basso interviews the translator, Linda Gboriau, who talks about trying to subliminally clue the audience that some of the characters—notary and twins–are from Montreal and go to the Middle East where French is spoken but the audience hears them in English. At other times, when the drama is in the past, in the Middle East, other things were required linguistically. Of the many nuances Gboriau aspired to, few were polished by opening night resulting in a real mish-mash.
Of the twins, Babak Tafti, as Simon, does a great job of portraying his character’s inner emotions. At first, Simon is dismissive and embittered by the sting of his mother’s abandonment but later, as the facts unfold, he works through the stages of anger, to what we sense is evolving compassion and deep confusion. One of the highlights of Annie Purcell’s fairly flat performance as Janine is her fascinating digression into graph theory. Janine’s an emotionally-stilted Ph.D. candidate in theoretical math and presents a riveting analysis of how the perspective she once had of her position in the family has shifted with the new information revealed in her mother’s will. Her comfort zone—a vertice point on a polygon with a known number of visible connections—has shifted and she now has more connections to contend with and doesn’t know how to move forward. It is evident that the very scars that Janine’s mother inherited from her mother’s abandonment have marred Janine as well.
Truly, the psychic work of all our lives is to heal the wounds inflicted upon us by our parents. In Scorched, we leave wondering if Nawal’s final decision, to lead her children on a journey toward the devastating truth, is too much for them to bear. If you do see this play, go later in its run. And be sure to catch the film, which was Canada’s official Oscar entrant and can be streamed on NetFlix. The film touched a deep but smoldering place deep inside of me and had me thinking for days about my own origins and the emotional legacy I inherited from both my adoptive and birth parents, whereas the play came and went.
Who is Nawal Marwan, the Woman Who Sings? In 2000, playwright Wajdi Mouawad learned the story of Soha Bechara, a Lebanese Christian with pro-Muslim sympathies, had attempted to assassinate the commander of the Israeli-supported South Lebanon Army during the Lebanese Civil War and was subsequently incarcerated in the notorious Khiam prison for a decade. She was sentenced to solitary confinement in a cell adjacent to the room where inmates were tortured. “For ten years,” Mouawad told CBS News, “she heard the crying and pain of the tortured. To try not to become mad, she began to sing. She sang the songs she knew—popular songs. The people in the jail who heard this woman but never saw her, called her The Woman who Sings. She gave them hope and courage to survive.” Bechara became Mouawad’s inspiration for Nawal, the mother whose history is uncovered by her children in Incendies. (Words on Plays, p. 6)
Details: Scorched performs a limited run February 16–March 11, 2012, at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. Performances: Tuesday–Saturday at 8 p.m. and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets (starting at $10) are available by calling the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or at act-sf.org.
Bill Cain’s “How to Write a New Book for the Bible,” caring, coping and loving one’s way through the death of an elderly parent, at Berkeley Rep through November 20, 2011
Written by Bill Cain; Directed by Kent Nicholson; Designed by Scott Bradley (sets); Costumes by Callie Floor; lighting by Alexander V. Nichols; sound by Matt Starritt
Starring Aaron Blakely (Paul), Linda Gehringer (Mary), Leo Marks (Pete), and Tyler Pierce (Bill)
Details: How to Write a New Book for the Bible closes November 20, 2011. The Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Thrust Stage is located at 2025 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704. Tickets and Info: (510) 647-2949, http://berkeleyrep.org