“Nothing means more than being together,” says a young and pregnant Nawal bidding farewell to her lover Wahab, a refugee fleeing the militia as the country dissolves into civil war. This sentiment is repeated throughout “Scorched” in various contexts of loss of lovers, friends, parents, children, and home. The name of the country is never mentioned, but the program notes advise that the events portrayed are referring to the atrocities of the Lebanese Civil War, 1975-1990. The character of Nawal (played as a young woman by Deema Turkomani and at middle age by Lisa Hill-Corley) is inspired by the life of Soha Béchara who attempted to assassinate Antoine Lahad, head of the Christian militia of South Lebanon in 1988. As the name of the nation goes unmentioned, so do the religious identities of the warring groups. The character names, costumes, and improvised musical accompaniment suggest the Middle East but the lack of specificity elevates the story from a series of historical data points to a universal saga of misunderstanding and hatred of the other. In our current climate of identity politics, playwright Wajdi Mouawad makes an astute choice.
…a bracing theatrical experience—timely, entertaining, and profoundly moving.
We first glimpse Nawal and Wahab (Ramsey Zeitouneh in one of his four roles) amid the white trees, rocks, and sunlight of Hailey LaRoe’s lovely projections. Their joy is short-lived. After Wahab’s departure, their baby, illegitimate and unwanted by Nawal’s family, is torn from Nawal’s arms, trailing the sheet in which he is wrapped across the stage like an umbilical cord stretching across the world. It is a stunning visual moment, effectively rendered by Ian Claar’s lighting design. The abandoned sheet/severed cord remains on stage throughout the performance, dividing past from present, north from south, and classroom from boxing ring. Nawal will spend the rest of her life searching for her lost son.
The action shifts to another unnamed country, perhaps France or Canada—both homes to the Lebanese-Québécois playwright Mouawad—where two children of Nawal, twins Simon (Ahmad Kamal) and Janine (Neagheen Homaifar), meet with the notary, Alphonse (Steve Lebens), to discuss the terms of their deceased mother’s will. To their surprise and dismay, Alphonse informs them their mother had stipulated she cannot be buried until the twins deliver two letters to their father and to a heretofore unknown half-brother. Thus begins their quest to find their brother, learn why their mother seemed cold and uncaring, and discover who their father is. Kamal gives a stirring and complex performance as the angry son, Simon, who is attempting a career as a boxer. Homaifar provides a strong contrast as a thoughtful, if distant, math teacher obsessed with teaching unsolvable problems. As the notary, Steve Lebens is delightful throughout as a somewhat hapless but optimistic narrator and guide to the twins as they return to the country of their mother. At one point Simon asks Alphonse how he knows so much more about their mother than her children do? “How do I know?” he responds, “I asked.”
Director and founder of Expats Theatre, Karin Rosnizeck, has done a marvelous job with a challenging script. The play races along, alternating from present to past, country of refuge to country of origin, times of peace to horrific scenes of war. It’s a big story filled with complex and difficult themes. However, the playwright undercuts the focus on very real issues and events depicted by dissecting the behavior of certain characters. In this context, a justification for the existence of evil seems unnecessary. It does exist, and we must learn to recognize and combat it to bring the world together. Nothing means more than (all of us) being together. That message is strong enough for this well-produced evening in the theatre. This textual flaw aside, “Scorched” is a bracing theatrical experience—timely, entertaining, and profoundly moving.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: Includes a discussion of war and violence, strong language, usage of a non-firing prop gun, and loud noises (jackhammer and gunshots).
“Scorched” runs through October 15, 2023 presented by ExPats Theatre in the intimate space of the Lab Theatre II at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St., NE, Washington, DC 20002. For more information and tickets, go online or call the Box Office at (202) 399-7993, ext. 501, Tue-Sun: 12 pm-6 pm and one hour prior to the performance.