Acclaimed play delves into ‘Scorched’ family history

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The road to hell is paved with good conventions,” says the malapropian notary, Alphonse Lebel (David Strathairn), in a relatively lighthearted and seemingly inconsequential moment in Wajdi Mouawad’s, “Scorched,” which opened last week at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

Yet nothing, no matter how lighthearted, can be taken as inconsequential in Mouawad’s world. Translated from French by Linda Gaboriau, “Scorched,” is the harrowing story of story of two twins’ discovery of their mother’s past, while exploring ideas of memory, causality and communication.

Lebel (Strathairn), for all his malapropisms is in fact one of the plays better communicators. Simon (Babak Tafti), a boxer, seems unable to say anything without hitting something and Janine (Annie Purcell), his twin sister, cryptically communicates through advanced mathematics. Their mother, Narwal, who emigrated from an unnamed middle-eastern country (probably modeled on Mouawad’s native Lebanon), never communicated her past to her children until one day, she found herself unable to speak at all. Five years later, the children are summoned by a notary to carry out their mother’s, last wishes; to seek out the father she had once told her children was dead and to discover a son she had never mentioned before.

While Strathairn is delightful and moving as Alphonse, the real star of the show is Mouawad’s perfectly constructed script. Small lines of dialogue find themselves repeated later, their consequence and significance totally altered. These repetitions echo throughout the script like a symphony reprising, developing and altering its thematic melodies. It allows Mouawad to explore the traumatic and painful nature of communication and memory so fully that you’ll think someone slipped you a Madeline cake before the performance.

Scenic designer Scott Bradley’s balletic set sees itself as a physical extension of Mouawad’s words. It is minimalist and evocative. Suspended from all manner of pulleys and levers, the set, like the script, prods and pokes at the memory by reprising certain staging and set elements from earlier scenes; a sprinkler will become a hail of bullets, and a table morphs into a grave. Director Carey Perloff’s layered staging makes full use of the set’s depth to keep us involved in all levels of the story; across all its varied time and geographical obstacles it integrates the story with Mouawad’s intellectual probing.

Unfortunately, it is in the handling of certain minute moments that script and production fall short. While the lofty themes of the play and some energized moments feel perfectly translated by Gaboriau, the crucial scenes of teen romance between Narwal (in flashback) and her lover feel incomplete. There is a disconnect in these scenes that arises from a confusion of vision on the part of translator and performer. Gorbinau seems to have opted for a naturalistic rendering of the present day scenes and a more poetic feel for the flashbacks. The performers, for most of the play at least, are in tune with this dichotomy. Unfortunately, when it comes to Narwal and her lover, neither translator nor performer seems to know whether they are aiming for naturalism or poetry, and the scene comes off as a poor attempt at both.

However, Gaboriau’s attempt emphasizes the ambition of “Scorched,” which sets itself up to achieve on both emotional and intellectual planes. For the most part, the production succeeds in reconciling these two aims. Mouawad takes us down the road to hell, but the efforts of the A.C.T.’s production make it a journey worth taking.