World Premiere of A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS is Stunning
Telling the stories of women's lives - whether here in the U.S. or in the war-torn streets of Kabul, Afghanistan - can be an act of courage, defiance and ultimately of healing. And so it is with playwright/storyteller Ursula Rani Sarma, who unflinchingly unfolds a searing adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's novel, "A Thousand Splendid Suns," at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.). The play, commissioned by A.C.T., is devastatingly masterful and almost unbearable in its honest portrayal of the lives of two Afghan women trapped in a world not of their making and a life not of their choosing. Playing now through February 26, A Thousand Splendid Suns is at once haunting and hopeful; shattering and uplifting and will surely open people's hearts and minds to the plight of women in the world today.
The intertwined stories of Mariam and Laila come to life onstage under the deft direction of Carey Perloff, who worked with an almost poetic creative team to craft this tragic tale. Book, music, lights, costumes, set and sound come together in exquisite accompaniment to the talented team of actors on the stage. To highlight just a few: Composer and saw player David Coulter's plaintive score lends texture and nuance to the production and Linda Cho's costume designs are evocative of the decades covered in the show.
Perhaps most compelling is Ken MacDonald's imaginative scenic design (aided by Robert Wierzel's rich lighting) which grounds us in a ravaged yet beautiful Kabul. The prominent placement of a sphere of jumbled wire serves as the sun. It mocks the title of the work, as if to say that even the "splendid" sun cannot bring warmth and sustenance to lives fractured and controlled by men and men's wars. But the story takes place mostly within the spare, constrained interior of the home of Rasheed (Haysam Kadri) and his two wives. Mariam (Kate Rigg) is his long-suffering first wife who is condemned, by virtue of her bastard birth, to a life of degradation and neglect. Soon there will be a second wife.
When an explosion hits their neighborhood, Rasheed rushes to the rescue of his neighbor's family and finds only 15-year-old Laila (Nadine Malouf). She is barely alive. Her father Babi (Barzin Akhavan), a university professor and his loving wife Fariba (Denmo Ibrahim) were killed instantly by the blast.
Laila recuperates, Rasheed finds himself attracted to her and convinces the teenager to marry him, much to Mariam's dismay. She deeply resents the intrusion of this young girl into her life. Laila really has no choice. She has no family, and she is not allowed to be in public without a man by her side, so she cannot leave. She's not allowed to work anyway. Rasheed says that her reputation is threatened because she's a single woman living in a man's home and that it's his duty to protect her from other men by marrying her. But, we wonder, who will protect Laila from Rasheed. She's seen the way he abuses Mariam.
Soon enough Laila's daughter, Aziza, is born and it this girl child that ultimately softens Mariam's heart and opens the door to a friendship with her rival. The two women bond in their mutual love for the baby and in their shared loathing of Rasheed. Over time they share the stories of their lives. Mariam tells Laila about her destitute mother (Denmo Ibrahim) and her rich father (Jason Kapoor) and the grief she felt over not being properly acknowledged by him. Laila speaks of Tariq (Pomme Koch), the boy she loved and the family life she misses so much. Though their backgrounds are so different their current plight is a shared one.
In an interview about 'Thousand Suns,' author Khaled Hosseini said that "The background [of the story] is the upheavals in Afghanistan which in many ways shapes the lives of these women."
Is the situation in America so different? Most assuredly so. Nevertheless, American women know too well their shared background story of second-class citizenship and being "prized" by men more for beauty than brains. What will our story be going forward?
Director Carey Perloff writes about "...the role storytelling can play in the global dialogue." Kabul was a thriving, cosmopolitan city before the Soviet invasion. Women went to college and had professional lives. Girls went to school. Will some real or contrived scare be the excuse used to curtail American women's freedoms going forward?
The January 21, 2017 Women's March On Washington and the Sister Marches around the world are now part of our shared story. A Thousand Splendid Suns opens our eyes to the stories of our sisters in Kabul, allowing us to shed stereotypes and begin building bridges. In light of our present political climate, A Thousand Splendid Suns may also be viewed a cautionary tale. Take heed, sisters.
A Thousand Splendid Suns
Written by Ursula Rani Sarma. Adapted from Khaled Hosseini's 2007 novel, "A Thousand Splendid Suns."
Directed by Carey Perloff
Now through Feb. 26.
Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne
To see a trailer: www.youtube.com/watch?v=gHgOhrdMWk4
To see Khaled Hosseini tell his refugee story: www.youtube.com/watch?v=4XJj1DSgwBE