“Before a single line was written, we talked about consolation. The stage as the scene of ruthless consolation. A ruthless consolation. For me, that was a first step into the tunnel. The guiding spirit.” – Wajdi Mouawad, from the introduction to Scorched.
I have begun rehearsing Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad, a production set to open March 4th at The Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia. Loosely based on the events and atrocities of the Lebanese civil war, the play is a journey of discovery. Two young adult twins – Janine and Simon – come to a notary’s office in their Canadian city to receive the will of the recently deceased mother, Nawal. For no apparent reason, Nawal went silent by choice five years before her death, when her two children were 17, shattering an already dysfunctional relationship. As the notary reads the will to the two children, the play begins, and we are taken on a journey which will reveal who this woman was and what happened to her. It is a journey which leaves us scorched.
Rehearsals began Friday January 23rd. We have read through the play twice: once without stopping, for the community of the theater; and then again slowly over the weekend, stopping constantly to ask questions and have discussions. I have been meditating on the title: Scorched. I originally thought it was too much, too brutal. But I now see it less as “”obliterated by flame” and more “marked by fire”. The play could be called Scarred. It examines the consequences of wounding, and the stories told (or hidden) by the marks wounds make: scars, bruises, burns.
It is a play about war and sectarian violence; about terrorism, torture, rape and massacre. But in one of the play’s many virtues, it reminds us over an over that by the time we are in the midst of the violence, the moment to do something to stop it has come and gone. It reminds us that violence begins between two people, any two people, before it grows to envelope communities or nations. And it shows us that in the darkest wound, the hottest scorching, even then there is a choice to make: we can be defined by the wound, or we can be defined by the living people we remain, full of the potential for goodness, humanity and love.
I play the notary, Alphonse Lebel. He is the comic relief in the play, prone to an odd, nervous speech pattern and nutty malapropisms (“You can’t put the house before the cart!”) I have been working on his big speech which opens the play, and fretting that he wasn’t all that funny. But at the Friday read through the assembled in-house audience laughed hard at my reading of him, restoring a sense of hope that he might actually put a smile on some faces. Blanka the director remarked over the weekend, “People really need the laughs they get in this play.”
I am the only local Philadelphia actor in a cast of nine, the eight others coming in from New York. I am the token Anglo in the bunch too, the rest of them being a gorgeous gamut of Mediterranean types. As we sat around the rectangle of tables this weekend – Blanka, the cast, my friend Walter our dramaturg, Pat our stage manager and her assistant, and at various times various composers, designers and advisors – as we read through the play slowly, I felt myself feeling deeply grateful to be at work in that room of artists. I realized how long it’s been since I have felt a sense of mission attached to my work as an actor – not since The Crucible in 2006. I mean mission in the evangelical sense: that I have a spiritual message to share through theatrical means. I think actors must always have some mission connected to our work. For me in Tuna Christmas, it was lightness and laughter. But that’s different than the deep mission of actor work which addresses the world in the “fierce urgency of now” (sorry, I couldn’t resist, and anyway it’s apt). I am feeling myself sinking deeply into this funny little man I am playing, drawing closer to his surprisingly large heart and girding my loins for the intense journey he goes on with the twins.
And it’s good to be back at The Wilma, the birthplace in 1994 of my new actor’s life in Philly, the life of the citizen actor. And then in 2000, a place I went on another extraordinary journey into the mind of A.E. Houseman, Tom Stoppard and The Invention of Love. Good to be back with Blanka, who is my model of graceful, humorous and precise direction. She is an inspirational artist to me. I love her and I love working with her.
Now, with Susan having been cast recently in Albee’s At Home at The Zoo at Philadelphia Theatre Company which begins rehearsing in New York during preview week of Scorched, all we have to do is figure out who’s taking care of the kids . . . Scorched-post 1 Sunday, January 25, 2009