Wednesday, February 15, 2017

"A Thousand Splendid Suns"

A Thousand Splendid Suns
Adapted by Ursula Rani Sarma
Based on the Novel by Khaled Hosseini
David Coulter (Music)

David Coulter and Cast of "A Thousand Splendid Suns"
For many years -- actually several decades -- daily headlines have presented themselves about the ongoing wars, devastation, atrocities, and yes, human suffering of a faraway land most of us still have trouble mentally locating its exact boundaries and neighbors:  Afghanistan.  More specifically, we have all heard of a city called Kabul whose name is familiar but a city few of us can probably envision beyond dusty ruins and people running scared in the streets among bursting bombs and sniper bullets.  And as we become oblivious to the overload of bad news from this region, largely going unnoticed by the bulk of the world – including you and me --
are the people who go about their daily lives and chores, who love their kids just as we do ours, and who have dreams just like us to be happy (or in their case, “finally happy”).

Playwright Ursula Rani Sarma and Artistic Director Carey Perloff aim to ensure we pause long enough to see what is going on in the kitchens, bedrooms, and other inner sanctums behind all those bombed-out streets and buildings.  American Conservatory Theatre presents in opera-level proportions in world premiere an intimate look into the lives of three generations of women in modern Kabul in Ms. Sarna’s adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns.  With his original music reflecting the region and the emotional elements of the story (all played on instruments true to Afghani traditions), David Coulter provides an ongoing stream of haunting notes and melodies that accentuate the epic yet microscopic view the playwright and director lay out before us of daily life in war-torn Kabul.

Denmo Ibrhim, Barzin Akhavan & Nadine Malouf
Fifteen-year-old Laila is described by her mother as a “thinker, a dreamer,” something we quickly see as she dotes on her professor father and his love of books.  (“There’s always time for poetry,” he tells her.)  As the family packs hurriedly to leave Kabul as it is caught in the middle of the horrific civil war among the Mujahideen, her father (Barzin Akhavan) plays a game with her to help him pick five books to bring (“like the game when you’re going on a desert island”).  But the game and the dream ends quickly and decisively as a whistling missile finds its target of their neighborhood, leaving Laila wounded and an orphan – one of surely thousands such orphans through the decades in that hellacious, war-ravaged land.

Haysam Kadri, Kate Rigg & Nadine Malouf
Taken in by what seems at first a kind-hearted neighbor, middle-aged Rasheed, Laila is nursed slowly back to health under his watchful eye and the reluctant help of his sullen, suspecting wife, Mariam.  When further bad news arrives that Laila’s childhood friend (and secret love) Tariq has also perished in the bombs, she reluctantly accepts a proposal by an insistent Rasheed to become his second wife – something his older wife vehemently protests to no avail.  And why would Mariam not when Rasheed declares in front of her and his new, beautiful, teen bride, “She (Mariam) is not like us ... If she was a car, she could be a Volga ... You, you’d be a Benz ... a shiny Mercedes Benz.”

But when his bride produces a first-born, oft-crying girl baby, Aziza (rather than a more-desired son), Rasheed begins to turn more and more sour on his young bride and more violent toward his older bride.  Ultra-machismo attitudes are further reinforced and exaggerated by the ascendency of the women-hating Taliban as Afghanistan’s rulers.  His increasing restrictions, sourness, explosive ranting, and physical threats become the impetus for the two wives to forge a mother-daughter-like bond that becomes their primary means for mutual survival – and the survival of the daughter they jointly treasure above all else.  Even when a son does arrive, Rasheed’s treatment of the women in the household only worsens as he showers all his love, occasional gifts, and even decreasingly available food on his adored Zalmai.

Nadine Malouf & Kate Rigg
Nadine Malouf and Kate Rigg are almost-beyond-description perfect in their respective roles as Laila and Mariam.  Both transform before us in ways that ongoing war, societal prejudice, daily hunger, and spousal abuse have a way of marking wear and tear on their faces, their postures, and their very souls.  At the same time, each glows through their tears and scars in the familial love they increasingly feel for each other and in the love they share for the two children.  Their everyday lives determinedly persist in ways women have carried on for countless generations in hundreds of other wars generated and perpetuated by their men.  We see in each of them an Every Woman of war-torn nations while also experiencing two very particular, nuanced personalities that these two fine actresses so skillfully reveal to us.

Pomme Koch & Nadine Malouf
Part of what we learn from and about them comes through stories they share with each other of their pasts (stories we see re-enacted as they tell them) and through dreams -- sometimes nightmares -- that return time and again.  Pomme Koch is the lame lover, Tariq, who disappeared in a moment’s notice but who reappears in the mind’s eye of Nadine as a joking, teasing, loving boy who only has eyes (and stolen kisses) for her.  He is a dream that never leaves her and one she readily shares with her beloved Mariam (along with a secret that Rasheed has long suspected and gnaws at him with increasing and deadly rage).

Mariam shares a sad story of her own, one about a mother she calls Nana who once hung herself and who returns shuffling through Mariam’s mind, dragging a noose around her neck with her.  All the time she reminds Mariam that the Koran only has one charge for women like them:  “Endure.”  Denmo Ibrahim is the gravelly voiced, evil-eyed haunt that will not leave Mariam in peace.  (She also plays earlier Laila’s hovering, admonishing mother, Fariba.)

Haysam Kadri, Nadine Molouf & Kate Rigg
Haysam Kadri grabs hold of the role of Rasheed and literally leaves no stone unturned in his graphic, all-engrossing portrayal.  In the beginning, he presents a man that we can readily find some reasons to sympathize with him and his fate.  We even can sometimes come close to admiring his perseverance while at the same time more and more becoming uneasy over his obvious and troubling faults.  However, as he at first slowly and then later at alarming speed transforms this man into a monster, we see the faults mount and intensify, horribly reflecting the demonic, male-dominated society around him and turning Rasheed into a being almost no longer recognizable as human.

Nikita Tewani and Neel Noronha as the sister-brother pair Aziza and Zalmai continually remind us through their adept acting that behind the bombs and atrocities, children are still finding ways to play and to quarrel, to tease and to complain.  But in this case, they are also suffering the pains, tensions, and sins of their parents and the surrounding society as reflected in their own faces full of trepidation and fears of things they do not quite understand. 

Carey Perloff reminds us of the mammoth scope of the suffering and hardships of the Afghani people that goes much beyond this one household under examination.  Shrouded players dragging their households move across the stage as if in an historical, migratory trek toward hopeful survival against the continuous backdrop of a non-forgiving landscape, seemingly non-ending war, and a large sun that bears down with no obvious mercy.  Ken MacDonald’s scenic design combined with Robert Wierzel’s lighting genius paint a massively stark and yet beautiful, ageless landscape that surrounds this contemporary disaster created by men and nations.  The elements and shadows are enormous in scale.  The colors are ever-changing as the landscape sometimes splits apart and opens up to reveal a dream, an atrocity, a new reality.  Jake Rodriguez’s sound scape and Linda Cho’s ethnically and geographically defining costumes round out a creative team that is as much a part of this overall stunning, stirring story’s resulting power as are the writer and the cast.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is a story, a picture, and a memory we cannot ignore the next time we see a headline about some faraway, God-forsaken land and its ongoing wars and rivalries.  Carey Perloff and the American Conservatory Theatre have assured that when we read those too-familiar words, we will see the faces of the women and children huddled somewhere in the depths of the front-page pictures – women struggling to cook a meal and maybe share a cup of tea and children hoping to play a little soccer and maybe even go to school to learn.

Rating: 5 E

A Thousand Splendid Suns continues through February 26, 2017 on the Geary Stage of of American Conservatory Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.

Photos by Kevin Beane

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