Against the current rage of Islamophobia infecting our nation, the world premiere of “The Thousand Splendid Suns” at ACT’s Geary Theater explores the plight of Afghani women.
Based on Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling 2007 novel, this theatrical adaptation by Ursula Rani Sarma, a co-production by ACT and Theatre Calgary, focuses on the lives of its three main characters. Rasheed (Haysam Kadri) is the domineering and cruel Afghani husband and head of his Kabul household, who lives with his long-suffering wife, Mariam (Kate Rigg). A young woman, Laila (Nadine Malouf), joins their ménage to recover from her bombing injuries; she later becomes Rasheed’s additional and second wife. The two women grow from animosity toward each other, to love, as they suffer together the brutality of their husband, while they raise Laila’s two children. They fight courageously for sufficient food to feed their family, an education for Laila’s daughter, Aziza (Nikita Tewani), and for a freer life.
Behind the narrative is a glimpse into the modern history of Afghanistan, from the Afghan Civil War (1989-96), which followed the Soviet Union’s withdrawal, to the tyrannical control by the Taliban that began in 1996. The story is also a polemic about the cruelty and despotism of the Taliban’s regime and of the sad plight of the women who suffer under it, lacking any personal freedom whatsoever. They are virtual prisoners — even prohibited from leaving their houses without being accompanied by a male family member.
The theatrical version of “A Thousand Splendid Suns” edits the book, yet covers over 15 years of the main characters’ lives, with several flashbacks. That’s a lot of material to cover in two acts. And although there are many moments where one can connect with the powerful yet poignant plight of the women characters, the production occasionally veers into the episodic and superficial. Each scene presents a new conflict or calamity, to the detriment of subtlety, realism or exploration of the characters’ inner lives. Perhaps it was decided to treat the play as a fable in order to universalize the women’s plight, but it does leave one occasionally breathless and dissatisfied, as time marches on from scene to scene.
This imperfection, which is often inherent in bringing a novel to life in the theater, is overcome by the sheer theatricality of “A Thousand Splendid Suns” with impressive acting by the entire cast, impeccable direction by Carey Perloff, and evocative music by David Coulter (Kronos Quartet, ACT’s “Black Rider”) who plays the guitar, the saw and percussions to intensify the tender or taut mood, as needed. The stunning yet spare set design by Ken MacDonald and the mutable lighting by Robert Wierzel magically transform every scene, adding a distinct otherworldly atmosphere to the mountains and sun in the background.
“A Thousand Splendid Suns” is an inspiring and emotional drama in which love and friendship help to alleviate women’s suffering. And it’s rare to see a play that so honorably portrays women’s courage. Don’t miss this exciting evening of theater.
Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2017 All Rights Reserved