By Jean Lowerison | Theater Review
A tale of survival, strength and support
Sometimes it seems that world history, which has been advancing for centuries, is regressing to a more restrictive and oppressive place — especially for women.
Afghanistan — and particularly its capital, Kabul — was on the ancient Silk Road between Europe and the East. The country’s natural riches made it a popular target for invaders including Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Great Britain.
More recently, the Soviet Union invaded the area in 1979, but withdrew a decade later, unable to overcome the ferocious opposition of the local populace.
The two women in Afghanistan at the center of “A Thousand Splendid Suns” not only confront the casual sexism all women deal with, but also the fundamentalist rules for women imposed when the Taliban took over the country in the late 1980s. These included bans on nearly everything, including education, driving and the ability to go anywhere alone. Women were pretty much confined to the kitchen and the bedroom.
Novelist Khaled Hosseini, whose family relocated to Paris in 1976 and then to San Jose, California in 1986, has written three international best-selling novels about his former home of Afghanistan. “A Thousand Splendid Suns” is one of those stories.
The book has been masterfully adapted for the stage by Ursula Rani Sarma. This joint production of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater (ACT) and Theatre Calgary plays through June 17 at the Old Globe.
Carey Perloff, celebrating her 25th year as artistic director of San Francisco’s ACT, takes the helm to tell this story of persistence and friendship.
Set in Herat and Kabul between 1989 and 2001 — on opposite sides of Afghanistan — “Suns” traces the lives of shoemaker Rasheed (Haysam Kadri) and his two wives, 30-something Mariam (Denmo Ibrahim) and 15-year-old Laila (Nadine Malouf).
Mariam is a country girl from Herat and the illegitimate daughter of Jalil (Jason Kapoor), who was married off by her family to get rid of her. Rasheed treats Mariam badly, partly because she has borne him no children.
Educated 15-year-old Laila (Nadine Malouf) is crazy about her father Babi (Joseph Kamal), an avid reader who reads poetry aloud to her. When Laila and her family are preparing to leave Kabul, Babi has so much trouble picking only a few books to take that Laila volunteers to pick five for him.
Laila always thought she’d marry childhood sweetheart Tariq (Antoine Yared), but the family doesn’t move fast enough. When the bombing stops, Laila is left orphaned and wounded on the street. She’s picked up and taken to a hospital by Rasheed, who found her unconscious. Then he takes her home and marries her, partly to save her from a worse fate — but mostly to serve him.
Needless to say, Mariam is not thrilled to share the house with this young interloper, even less so when she finds out Laila is pregnant and may be able to give Rasheed the child he wants.
Laila will learn what Mariam already knows: Rasheed is quick to anger and does not spare the rod. Mariam’s mother had warned her as a child: “A man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always.”
The name of the game is adaptation and survival. “Suns” is the story of how these women make peace, establish a mutually supportive relationship, and manage to find the strength to persist despite the viciousness and violence of both Rasheed and society.
The show has a terrific cast, including five original cast members. Ibrahim and Malouf, both veterans of the show, are as believable as Mariam and Laila are different in background and class.
Kadri’s Rasheed has both a sense of decency and of entitlement, but his volubility makes him a scary presence to Mariam and Laila.
Several other characters are intriguing as well: Laila’s deeply caring parents, excellently played by Joseph Kamal and Lanna Joffre; Antoine Yared as Laila’s teen crush Tariq; and Nikita Tewani as Laila’s first child, daughter Aziza.
Technical aspects of the show are very strong as well. The backdrops in Ken MacDonald’s set, together with Robert Wierzel’s lighting, almost give us an art show. The set pieces themselves are movable and suggestive.
Jake Rodriguez’s sound design and David Coulter’s original music are definite pluses.
“A Thousand Splendid Suns” is not to be missed.
— Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.