Ember Alert: Orange Girls present a red-hot production of Scorched

Sep 17, 2008 at 4:00 am

I'd like to thank director Tom Martin and the Orange Girls for dragging me behind their locomotive of a show for three hours, then cutting me loose and flinging me back into the real world where nothing makes sense, people are thin and dull and the whole of my life is not contained on a raised platform filled with sand and office furniture. The evening enhanced my life even as it ruined my weekend, and for that I am grateful.

Wadji Mouawad's Scorched is a beast of a play, tripping along pell-mell toward a denouement that I cannot in good conscience reveal. The destination is not the point; it's the knowledge you gain along the journey that makes Scorched exhilarating. And if the experience burns you down to stubble emotionally and psychologically, so be it; some forests can't grow unless the soil has been cleansed by fire.

Scorched begins with the reading of a will. A bare office — table, chairs, end table — is set up on a desert floor. A blue wall with a ragged constellation of photographs of birds in flight taped to it is the backdrop. Bruce Longworth, as heroic public notary Alphonse Lebel, rambles through the will with a Quebecois accent and a comic gift for malapropism. Nawal, a woman from an unnamed war-torn country, has died in a Canadian nursing home after speaking for the first time in five years; her twin children Simon (Joel Lewis) and Janine (Brooke Edwards) are instructed to find their father (who they assumed was dead) and their older brother (who they did not know they had) and deliver a letter to each.

From this point forward, time and place ebb and flow and we see Nawal in her youth in a primitive village, Janine and Simon arguing about whether to obey the dictates of the will, Janine explaining to a classroom about her love for unsolvable math problems and why she feels that "the impossible is beautiful," and the twins' eventual pursuit of their mother's last wishes. Scenes overlap, actors setting themselves in one corner of the stage while others finish a scene, imitating the relentless flow of memory.

Mouawad's language is poetic, at times approaching the florid; there is much emphasis on birds as metaphors and a persistent use of twinning in character and action (actors play multiple roles throughout, further compounding the twin motif). Watching Scorched unfold is like studying one of Janine's beloved hypothetical polygons — you can't see the whole of it, but you can see individual elements, and often from different angles and points of view.

Nawal herself is played by three actors at three different ages in her life: Magan Wiles is Nawal at 19, Michelle Hand at age 40 and Nancy Lewis at age 60. Remarkably, they maintain the same spirit even as Nawal herself is changed. The cast is uniformly excellent, from Bob Mitchell's manic Nihad to Joel Lewis' explosively angry Simon to Longworth's endearing and warmhearted Lebel, all are magical.

But Nancy Lewis' Nawal is as profound and moving a performance as you may ever witness. Lot's wife looked back at what was her life and was transformed into a pillar of salt for her troubles. As Nawal at age 60, Nancy Lewis looks back on her life in an excoriating monologue that lasts for perhaps ten minutes, perhaps five years; for her troubles she is transformed into something divine. The words ring loudly, but she's not shouting; the meaning is terrible and becomes worse the longer she goes on, but you must listen.

You hang on every word of this litany of degradation, flinching in shame because she won't, cringing in terror at what Nawal knows as an everyday state, and somewhere along the way you apprehend what Mouawad knows because it's there in Lewis' beautiful, outraged face: We are monsters to each other, and we love each other — and the capacity for both states exists simultaneously in all of us. We are impossible to solve, difficult to fathom, and yet we somehow remain beautiful.