In Lebanese-Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad’s lengthy and ambitious drama “Scorched” — onstage at American Conservatory Theater — events unfurl with the grim inevitability of a Greek tragedy.
In present-day Quebec, a pair of chronically angry twins meet with the notary Lebel, the executor of their mother’s estate. Recently deceased after an unexplained five-year silence, their mother, Nawal, has bequeathed the twins an unwanted task: to deliver a pair of sealed letters, one to the father they never met, the other to the brother they never knew existed.
For this, they’ll need to go to their mother’s homeland, an unnamed Middle Eastern country meant to be Lebanon.
When they’ve accomplished these tasks, they must engrave their mother’s name on her tombstone.
Son Simon (played with explosive fury by Babak Tafti) refuses to comply. But daughter Janine (a repressed Annie Purcell) is compelled to solve the puzzle of her own roots.
Ultimately Simon joins the quest, aided by Lebel, who’s meant to provide comic relief but is portrayed ineffectively — and with a distracting, inexplicable accent — by David Strathairn.
Mouawad elegantly interweaves the fraught, 25-year journey of young Nawal (Marjan Neshat), from her teenage years in a poverty-stricken mountain village through a devastating civil war in which she wanders her homeland, seeking the son she’d been forced to give up at birth. Along the way, she encounters every imaginable wartime horror.
The two simultaneous time zones mesh in beautifully theatrical ways in designer Scott Bradley’s surreal set.
But what has worked for centuries in Greek tragedy somehow fails to ignite here. Seen and acclaimed worldwide since its 2003 premiere in the original French, “Scorched” has too many extraneous characters, too many scenes weighted down with repetitive arguments and an atonal attempt at humor that perhaps simply doesn’t translate well.
Certainly, the challenge of turning the playwright’s lyrical and poetic text into English must have been daunting for translator Linda Gaboriau, but key and oft-repeated phrases (“Now that we’re together, everything feels better”) are leaden.
And so too are many of the scenes in ACT artistic director Carey Perloff’s West Coast premiere. Some of that’s due to cliche characters, some to lackluster acting (despite impressive turns by Omozé Idehenre as Nawal’s friend and Jacqueline Antaramian as the older Nawal).
And there’s Mouawad’s general narrative and linguistic overindulgence, which dilutes a potentially heartrending drama. Thus scenes meant to arouse Aristotle’s prescribed catharsis of pity and fear fail to do so.
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: 415 Geary St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes March 11
Tickets: $10 to $85
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org