There’s a singular voice at work in Scorched, an undeniable passion driving it, and a substantial talent plainly and prominently on display. Its concerns are grave—fratricidal war, human depravity, cycles of violence as old as what we insist on calling civilization—and its craft, which pays homage to the oldest dramas in the Western canon and insists we contemplate their lessons anew, is considerable.
And as I drove away from the theater, in which actors whose abilities I’ve often celebrated had staged a performance of Wajdi Mouawad’s punishing drama under the guidance of a director whose taste and ambition I respect, I sat grasping the wheel of my car with a wrathful grip, my shoulders tight and my teeth clenched, until I finally had to call a friend, to whom I said the following: “I need to say this to somebody now, so I don’t take it out on them on the page, but oh my God that play made me want to shoot myself in the face.”
I have decided since, you’ll note, not to pretty that reaction up for you, not to wrap up my still-simmering rage and resentment in the usual critical platitudes. I’d rather get that gut reaction out in the open, and try to figure out why a play that’s had many resounding hosannas—it’s reportedly had 200-plus productions, in more than a dozen translations, since its 2007 premiere—struck me as something verging on the obscene.
The plot: A woman dies, not having spoken a word for five years, leaving her son and daughter—twins—a mysterious legacy. Quiet, lost Janine (Rachel Beauregard) is to find the brother they never knew they had and present him a sealed letter; resentful, pugnacious Simon (Alexander Strain) is to do the same with the father they’ve long thought dead. As they pursue this strange quest, the two will learn more about the mother who never seemed to love them much (she’s played touchingly by Dana Levanovsky, Amy McWilliams, and Rena Cherry Brown at various life stages), and discover why she stopped talking so suddenly, and what it had to do with that war-crimes tribunal she’d been following so closely.
When I tell you that Mouawad, who’s based in Quebec, is of Lebanese extraction, and that the twins’ mother will turn out to have grown up in a strife-torn country, unspecified but plainly Middle Eastern, you’ll begin to understand the seriousness of the play’s themes. And if I tell you that Scorched owes much to the Greek tragedies, it won’t take you much pondering to figure out which one it’s most indebted to. (Hint: Mother. Son. Ends badly.) All of this is fine, I should note; grand plays, and complicated ones, and wrenching considerations of how cruel we can be to each other, are usually right in my wheelhouse.
So what got to me? The stink of self-indulgence, for one thing, a sense that a serious talent has been both led astray by ego and failed by those around him. Scorched is three hours long, and exhaustingly overwritten; Mouawad dwells on ideas, foreshadowing and then showing and then recapitulating, pushing and pushing and pushing until the point he wants to make has been driven home and far past it. And the language: If Tennessee Williams writes purple, then what Mouawad and translator Linda Gaboriau are serving up doesn’t have a place on the visible spectrum. Where was the dramaturg, the artistic director, telling the author that too much of a good thing is sometimes just too much? The characters in Angels in America would tell the gabby protagonists of Scorched—especially that unbearable notary public, whose constant malapropisms aren’t nearly as funny or charming as Mouawad thinks—to shut up and get on with it.
Dramaturgical excesses I can understand, though. What I can’t come to grips with—the thing that pushed me away, that left me feeling like I was suffering through the play rather than suffering for its characters—was a creeping sense that Scorched relishes its near-endless catalog of atrocities rather too much. There’s more than a whiff of sadism about the story those twins discover, and a sense as the play grinds on that what we’re hearing has crossed a line from agonized witness-bearing to anesthetizing torture-porn. There’s a character, introduced in Act 2, who indulges laughingly in cruelties both breathtakingly random and explicitly fetishistic; recoiling from him, I recognized what I’d been growing wary of for half an hour or more.
In the Greek tragedies, it’s worth remembering, the mounting horrors and endless revenges have their roots in some instigating event—some hubristic over-reaching that sets up an inequity, some imbalance that demands a resolution. Not here: The woman whose story Scorched tells is guilty only of loving, and of sacrifice, and of trying to live humanely amid escalating insanity.
Maybe that’s Mouawad’s point: that the roots of today’s most intractable conflicts are lost to even the most diligent interrogation, that there’s nothing to be gained in trying to tally the score, that bad things happen to good people when action and reaction bleed into an endless exchange of gunfire.
Certainly that’s an idea Forum Theater’s production manages to suggest, and with no shortage of style. It’s one, though, that I wish Scorched could have approached with less hellish an appetite.