'Scorched' brings dark themes to Syracuse Stage

Review: Syracuse Stage's production of 'Scorched' grapples with heavy themes of family history and war.

Photo: Courtesy of Syracuse Stage
Simon (Dorien Makhloghi) tells Janine (Soraya Broukhim) that she is becoming obsessed and introverted after their mother's death.

In a time when war in the Middle East bombards television screens and dominates the front pages of newspapers, Syracuse Stage’s production of Scorched brings humanity to such atrocities. The play, which deals just as much with themes of family history and cyclical misfortunes as themes of war, will run through Nov. 10.


Scorched follows twins Janine (Soraya Broukhim) and Simon (Dorien Makhloghi) as they deal with the death of their mother, Nawal (Nadine Malouf). In her will, Nawal leaves her son and daughter cryptic missions to find their brother and father, respectively. The catch is they grew up believing they had no other siblings and that their father was dead. Their journey to find their relatives leads them to their roots in the Middle East, where they discover more about their mother than she ever shared with them during her life.

The story twists and turns, growing darker with each scene, but hope permeates the tragedy. This is accomplished by keeping a focus on the good in the world. Even amid torture, rape and death, the strength of family remains.

Scorched is not an easy play to stage. Because it jumps back and forth between Nawal’s youth and the twins’ hunt for their relatives after Nawal’s death, audiences could easily grow confused if it were handled with less skill.

 Fortunately, director Marcela Lorca effortlessly guides the audience from scene to scene. Even when past and present are on the stage at the same time, the use of lighting and set design keeps the audience perfectly in tune to what is going on.

Another challenge with this play is the pacing. For instance, in the beginning of Scorched, Nawal becomes pregnant with her first child. This part of the script is written in very short, successive scenes that span from conception to birth.

The pacing is not easy to deal with, but Lorca uses a creative, surreal approach to keep the audience up to speed. Instead of using fades to black to indicate passing time, which would make the pacing far too staccato and distracting, Lorca directed Malouf to put her rolled-up sweater underneath her shirt, symbolizing her growing belly.

Lorca is not afraid to acknowledge that this is theater, not real life. And, perhaps surprisingly, her surreal style is less distracting than a more straightforward, realistic approach would have been.

 Another way Lorca tells this story is through creative set design. The stage is actually quite stark, with painted panels representing America and the Middle East that are moved across the stage according to the scene.

But in addition to the simple layout on the stage, there are giant sheets that extend from floor to ceiling upon which images are projected. The projections are usually suited to Lorca’s surreal style; instead of projecting a simple background to suggest the characters’ locations, she chooses to project images that help tell the story.

For example, when Janine is showing someone a picture of her mother, the picture is projected for the audience to see. This is obviously not realistic, but the technique is consistent throughout the play, and it’s used to support the story. Rather than distracting the audience like one may think, these projections actually help viewers engage in the plot.

While Lorca’s vision is the most impressive part of the play, the cast is also a strength of the production. Malouf and Makhloghi in particular are stand-outs who bring their dynamic characters to life.

Simon’s hotheaded personality, which could easily lead lesser performers to embarrassing overacting, is played believably by Makhloghi, who manages to make the sarcastic character likable.

And Nawal’s development may be the most compelling character aspect of Scorched. She goes from a naïve young woman in love to a determined mother hunting for the child who was taken from her at birth to a defeated victim. This role could also have fallen victim to overacting, but Malouf skillfully plays her character with no melodrama.

Another aspect of Scorched that makes the play one not to be missed is the inclusion of the Kronos Quartet, whose recordings provide transitional music throughout the play. Although the music is always brief, playing between scenes, it keeps the audience in the drama during otherwise distracting set changes.

Scorched takes themes of a dark family history plagued with war and makes them relatable. The brave production is not only based on a strong story, but it is executed with great skill from both the cast and crew.

Scorched will run at Syracuse Stage through Nov. 10. Tickets are $18 for SU students with a valid student ID. 

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