Entertainment » Reviews

A Thousand Splendid Suns

by Elaine Beale
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Feb 15, 2017
A Thousand Splendid Suns

Adapting a novel for the stage is never easy. While a book can take several hundred pages, a play has only a matter of a couple of hours to allow the action to unfold.

An adaptation involves compression and hard choices, and what the novelist shows a reader through a few sentences of vivid description must be evoked through a spot-on combination of acting, scenery, lighting and sound. For all these reasons, it's not unusual for an adapted play to feel like a shallow, ersatz version of the original work.

Thus, in staging an adaptation of the Khaled Hosseini novel, "A Thousand Splendid Suns," San Francisco's ACT and the play's director Carey Perloff are taking a risk. Fortunately, it's a risk that mostly pays off.

What's particularly impressive about the script created by playwright Ursula Rani Sarma is that, by veering away from the novel's original structure and creating a new spine for the story, she creates a work that stands on its own merits.

The play centers around the relationship between two women: Laila (Nadine Malouf), young, urban and educated, and Mariam (Kate Rigg), almost a generation older and from a more conservative village background. Forced into each other's lives as a result of the violence leading to the Taliban's takeover of Kabul, their relationship starts out filled with jealousy and conflict.

Over time, however, it becomes a transformative alliance that allows both women to push back against the overwhelming misogyny and oppression they experience at home and in a society that becomes terrifyingly restrictive once the Taliban take power.

Both Malouf and Rigg deliver compelling and convincing performances that allow the audience to see them as well delineated individuals while also experiencing them as archetypes for female roles not uncommon in Afghan society.

Similarly, as Mariam's tragic and harsh mother, Denmo Ibrahim is vividly singular while also personifying the oppressive part women often play with their daughters in rigid patriarchal societies. Other accomplished performances include those by Haysam Kadri (Rasheed) as a violent and controlling husband and Pomme Koch (Tariq) as Mariam's childhood love.

The set by Ken MacDonald beautifully evokes Afghanistan's exceptional geography and the story's emotional mood, representing the sun with a jagged circle of wire and the mountains with glistening folds of metal mesh. The richly nuanced lighting by Robert Wierzel heightens the scenery's impact. But it is the music, written and performed by David Coulter, that provides the most powerful backdrop, adeptly creating a sense of tension and place throughout the play's entire two and a half hours.

That ACT has taken very seriously the task of accurately representing Afghan culture is only to be applauded. By working closely with cultural consultant Humaira Ghilzai and workshopping the play with members of the Afghan community, they brought authenticity to the story, characters, costumes, and props. It took several years to develop "A Thousand Splendid Suns" from inception to this world premiere, and the effort truly shows.

What is perhaps the least satisfying aspect of the production, however, is the way that, while it does manage to provide emotional insight into the experience of Afghan women, it never pushes beyond a safe and unchallenging container.

For Westerners watching the play, at least, there are no moments of real unease. The almost mythic quality of the story, plot devices that offer easy but unlikely escape, and a failure to show the truly devastating impacts of unrelenting brutal abuse in the home and society, mean that we leave the theater feeling that everything turned out all right in the end.

While this kind of drama may allow us to feel both virtuous and entertained, it seldom leaves anyone uncomfortable enough to think deeply or do very much at all.

"A Thousand Splendid Suns" plays through February 26 at ACT's Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street in San Francisco. For information or tickets, call 415-749-2228 or visit the theater's website

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