Review: SELLING KABUL at Northlight Theatre

The performance of the Pulitzer Prize finalist runs through February 25.

By: Feb. 04, 2024
Review: SELLING KABUL at Northlight Theatre

The American war in Afghanistan is likely the closest my generation will ever come to understanding the social and political forces at play during the Vietnam War fifty years ago. Often referred to as the "forever war," the armed conflict in Afghanistan lasted twenty years and ended with the ascendence of the very terrorist group the United States sought to eradicate in the first place. The images of the American withdrawal from the country were eerily similar to those seen in 1975. But instead of civilians scrambling toward a helicopter lifting off from Saigon, they ran toward a C-17 barreling down a runway. Witnesses glued to their televisions couldn't help but wonder: what was it all for? And what comes next? Sylvia Khoury's SELLING KABUL doesn't provide answers to these questions, but it does capture the pessimistic practicality and undying hope that continues to plague those most affected by a conflict that never really ended. The play now receives a deservedly provocative production at Northlight Theatre in Skokie, running through February 25.

A finalist for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for drama, SELLING KABUL recounts 90 minutes in the life of Taroon (Owais Ahmed), a former interpreter for the U.S. military in Afghanistan who is now a target of a newly emboldened Taliban. While hiding out in a cramped apartment belonging to his sister Afiya (Aila Ayilam Peck) and her husband Jawid (Ahmad Kamal), Taroon receives word that his wife has just given birth to their first son. As the sun sets and shadows outside grow more threatening, Taroon must choose between the safety of captivity or a family reunion that will be as joyful as it is dangerous.

Ahmed admirably captures the complexity of Taroon, a reckless character who is occasionally hard to like but always easy to root for. In the play's opening scene, Ahmed makes the most of the suffocating silence and simple stage directions, imbuing even the slightest action (such as gently cradling a malfunctioning wi-fi router) with heartbreaking desperation. While Khoury's script tends toward melodrama more often than not, one never doubts Ahmed's sincerity and pain.

Interestingly, while Taroon is the driving force behind the play, much of the show's action focuses on Afiya, his long-suffering sister who illustrates the moral compromises necessary to survival for many Afghans. She mends the uniforms of the very soldiers who are committed to executing her brother, but she also isn't above casting the Taliban's suspicion on another community member if it means buying Taroon a few more minutes of safety. Ayilam exudes a warmth tinged with intensity from the moment she enters the scene, making Afiya a relatable figure who becomes the unexpected hero of the story (at least for this critic). There are moments early in the narrative when the character's anxiety seems to reach a fever pitch too suddenly before dropping down into calmer waters, but it can be argued that such moments prepare audiences for the relentlessly tense final third of the play.

Review: SELLING KABUL at Northlight Theatre

Rounding out the small cast is Shadee Vossoughi as the nosey next-door neighbor, Leyla. Vossoughi provides oases of much-needed comic relief through her charming anecdotes and teasing quips. While the character's true intentions are broadcast too clearly too early in the play, her presence adds palpable tension as Taroon swiftly moves from one room to another to avoid detection. As Afiya's Taliban-affiliated husband Jawid, Kamal provides one of the production's emotional highlights, delivering a gut-wrenching monologue in which he inventories how he feels he has betrayed his country and rues the day he was born. 

Director Hamid Dehghani moves his actors through Joseph Johnson's perhaps appropriately sparse set with great care, reusing configurations of characters in ways that emphasize the love that connects them and the anxiety that builds walls between them. When Taroon and Afiyah sit next to one another sewing, one sees the easy humor that has developed between the siblings over the years; when Leyla and Afiyah do the same, audiences hold their breath until the intruder finally leaves the room. Maximo Grano de Oro's light design convincingly recreates the threatening advance of the night as well as the fear and isolation gripping Afiyah as Taroon's central conflict reaches its inevitable conclusion. Jeffrey Levin's sound design is so nerve-shredding and immersive that I initially thought a real baby was crying in the audience.

Altogether, Northlight has mounted a moving production of SELLING KABUL worthy of the play's many accolades. For now, at least, it is the closest many can come to understanding the life-or-death conflict many Afghans face, a conflict that has no sign of ending anytime soon. It's no wonder that Northlight has helpfully included in the play's program ways in which audiences can encourage politicians to help American allies who have been unjustly left to fend for themselves. 

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow