Forum Theatre's 'Scorched': Rambling play acted with admirable force
Thursday, October 7, 2010
Forum Theatre, the youngish troupe now in residence at the Round House's auxiliary theater in Silver Spring, is once again proving to be a champion of the marathon. "Scorched," like Forum's admirable earlier productions of "Angels in America" and "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot," is a big, rambling play staged simply and acted with force.
Wajdi Mouawad's war drama is long -- arguably too long at three hours -- but there are ample reasons why this Canadian play (written in French and translated by Linda Gaboriau) has attracted international attention. It begins with grown twins, Simon and Janine, who are bitter and silent at the death of Nawal, their maddeningly secretive mother. Nawal's last wishes include instructions that eventually send Simon and Janine on a quest to her turbulent native country in search of their mysterious father and brother.
The trip evolves into a genuine "Heart of Darkness" voyage, amplified with sharp overtones of Greek tragedy. Mouawad doesn't name the nation that becomes the subject of "Scorched," but Lebanon (where Mouawad was born) often fits, though certain incidents inevitably evoke Iraq and Afghanistan. The back story is an illicit romance that ends with young Nawal being cruelly punished by her repressive culture, a society that brutally turns in on itself in Mouawad's increasingly unsettling plot.
The play isn't gripping right away. Mouawad is prone to overwriting: The prologue with a genially bumbling notary is labyrinthine, the kids' professions (the fiery Simon is an amateur boxer, while the introspective Janine teaches graph theory) are too perfectly contrived, and the peculiarly lyrical speeches of a sniper mar the genuine tension of his arresting actions. More than the equally verbose "Angels" and "Last Days," "Scorched" sometimes sags under its literary ambitions.
But the punches that Mouawad lands are knockouts, and the production Michael Dove fashions is impressively efficient. The stage is largely bare, yet Dove and designer Lisi Stoessel get tremendous mileage from handfuls of sand that evoke grave sites, deserts, even outlines of corpses. And then there's that tremendous fabric looming over the stage, its edges singed as if a fireball hit it. That, too, alters in significance with shifts in Brian Engel's savvy lighting.
Chris Baine's subtle sound design frequently suggests a low apocalyptic wind that seems to cue the acting, which ranges from pensive to ferocious without ever ringing false. Alexander Strain and Rachel Beauregard are aptly matched as the twins, not because they look alike (they don't) but because they are able to play different temperaments while still seeming unalterably connected. (To say that the family bonds in this play are complex is a gross understatement.)
Nawal is played by three actresses (Dana Levanovsky, Amy McWilliams and Rena Cherry Brown) as the character ages, and history does seem to accrue with this group portrayal. Tina Ghandchilar does heart-rending work as a refugee who accompanies Nawal on one stage of her punishing trek. Maboud Ebrahimzadeh is icily indifferent as the creative sniper. It's a solid company, reaching heights without ever pushing.
Not everything Forum does is epic, nor should it be. But "Scorched" adds to a track record suggesting that when it wants to go long, it won't waste your time.
Pressley is a freelance writer.
by Wajdi Mouawad. Directed by Michael Dove. Costumes, Deb Sivigny. With Scott McCormick and Joseph Thornhill. About 3 hours. Through Oct. 23 at Round House Theatre Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Rd. Call 240-644-1100 or visit http:/