{photo: Thibaut Baron}

Seuls survivor
Wilma Theater
Broad & Spruce Sts. Philadelphia
Nov. 29-Dec. 11

In “Seuls” writer Harwan is so preoccupied with his 15,000 page thesis on theater and director Robert Lepage that he barely notices the odd things that are happening in his dingy hotel room- an old phone rings without being plugged in and the shadows move around on its own volition and there is even a little inside snowing. Meanwhile, Harwan is beating back loneliness of a recent breakup, arguing with his family over the phone and loosing his cool trying to track down Lepage for a vital interview. These are the peripheral plot points of in Seuls, Wajdi Mouawad’s 2008 tour de force “Seuls” currently in a limited run at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia.

Mouawad is a prolific Lebanese-Canadian playwright, actor and famed director directs himself in the play, which he performs in French with English subtitles, except when he speaks Arabic, in lines that are not translated. Mouawad’s play “Scorched” (staged at the Wilma Theater in 2009, to wide acclaim) a political drama with themes of refugee exiles and émigrés that is both timely and universal. Mouawad explores these themes in Seuls. Harwan’s father moved his family from war torn Lebanon to Canada, Harwan grapples with what was left behind and what it might mean now in various aspects of his life in his adoptive country. Seul is French meaning alone, so pluralizing it suggests that there may be more than one puzzle to solve.

Harwan cancels a visit with his father over the phone and the conversation devolves into a bitter family fight. Meanwhile Lepage is unreachable by phone and is rehearsing a new play in Russia. Harwan books a flight and at the airport he has to take a visa photo. But he receives a fateful phone call in the picture kiosk from his sister Layla that their father has had a stroke and is in a coma. Harwan goes to him and recalls places, events and images from his childhood and pivotal moments in their relationship that dredges up bitterness and the intractable bonds between father and son.

Flash forward to Europe where he has just found out that Lepage is back in Canada. Harwan takes the news well, but starts to unravel when he realizes that, on top of being stranded again, he has luggage filled with paint canisters. Meanwhile that corded phone is also in the room and it is ringing again, his sister Layla is leaving him a message about their dad on that phone that phone rings without being plugged in.

Mouawad is a consummate actor, believable in every moment over the course of two unpaused hours. Seuls will not be for everyone, as impressive this work is, it doesn’t escape a level of theatrical tedium- There are allusions to Lepage’s work and business wrangling with a publisher that strikes as filler, and way to much business with phones, computers and mobiles that hit the same notes of verisimilitude. In this ‘sixth sense’ moment, Mouawad unleashes a long visually arresting denouement.

Fortunately the play’s artistic designs rescue some of any static theatrical rhythms, chief among them Dominique Daviet’s masterful film projections in tandem with lighting design by Éric Champoux and equally compelling soundscape and original music by Michel Maurer and Michael Jon Fink. The arresting designs framed in Emmanuel Clolus’ stark set prove to be a most poetic visual template for Mouawad’s unforgettable and transformational finale.