Cruelty in Kabul
by Richard Dodds
Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns is a multi-generational novel that, unless you're pulling a Nicholas Nickleby, needs to be streamlined to become a manageable stage work. But streamlined is a relative word, and the first act of a world-premiere adaptation at ACT's Geary Theater may seem considerably less than aerodynamic. But the setup that that uneven first act provides leads to a second act of mounting theatricality, emotional involvement, and welcome catharsis by the end.
The 2007 novel, Hosseini's follow-up to The Kite Runner, focuses on two women of vastly different backgrounds in Afghanistan over the years of whipsaw changes for the country culminating in the Taliban rule. Ursula Rani Sarma's adaptation brings together its protagonists early in the play, with flashback scenes filling in their backgrounds that the novel more expansively explored in separate sections.
Laila is a romantically blossoming, education-hungry teenager when we first meet her, living in middle-class comfort in Kabul with her comparatively progressive parents. Mariam, on the other hand, is the illegitimate daughter of a married-with-children businessman in Herat, who lived with her embittered mother in kept banishment outside of town. But when we first encounter Mariam in the play, she has already been married off to a Kabul shoemaker who becomes disgusted with her after multiple miscarriages have failed to give him a son.
When Laila is injured and her parents killed as insurgents' bombs fall on the city, Mariam and her seemingly kindly husband Rasheed bring her into their home to nurse her back to health. But in Laila, Rasheed sees an incubator for a son, then takes her as a second wife. After months of antagonism as co-wives, Mariam and Laila begin to bond in a protective sisterhood against the increasingly erratic and cruel Rasheed.
Among the problems that drag at the first act are workaday scenes of primer-like plainness with characters cut from predictably drawn characters and speaking in an often-stilted manner to suggest a foreign language of affected proverbial import. It can be jarring when characters actually talk like regular folks, which, of course, is what they would be doing in their own world. The performers are definitely not all on the same page in a polyglot of linguistic affectations. And throughout the play there is a chronological disorder, as the adaptation pushes together scenes of characters who seem be learning about each other in what should be days rather than months and years apart.
But as the curtain rises on the second act, with plot preambles out of the way, the play and the production gain intensity, as life grows increasingly intolerable for Laila and Mariam despite the fact that Laila has provided Rasheed both a daughter (he calls her "it") and a son upon who he dotes. The already uneasy household becomes a battleground when Laila's childhood sweetheart, whom she has long presumed dead, pays an unannounced visit that sends Rasheed over the edge. It leads to a denouement that is tragic, redemptive, and triumphant.
Director Carey Perloff's production favors straight-ahead dramatic scenes, but there is a surrounding package that brings in ornamentation that includes tableaus of symbolic imagery, ethereal musical accompaniment by David Coulter, and Ken Macdonald's scenery that includes a barbed-wire moon, a sunrise-sunset elevating set, and a blood-spattered scrim to shout the violence in a particular scene.
As Laila, Nadine Malouf offers what is perhaps the most natural performance in the large cast, as she almost miraculously devolves from an eager teenager to a haggard wife. Kate Rigg, as Mariam, is already a haggard wife when we first encounter her, and what seems like complacency grows into burning revulsion in an intense but understated performance.
It's harder to get a fix on Haysam Kadri's performance as husband Rasheed, a character of both erratic development and temperament. But there's no mistaking his ability to create a character that the audience is unified in loathing. There is a comforting balance offered by Pomme Koch as Laila's true love Tariq. Denmo Ibrahim provides an example of the inconsistent tones of the production, heaving herself about like Anna Magnani in The Rose Tattoo, then occasionally slouching through scenes as a ghost with a variations of a noose around her neck.
In A Thousand Splendid Suns, novelist Hosseini set out to write a female counterpart to the male-dominated The Kite Runner. Women, of course, bear the brunt in this place where societal changes can upend their status in barely the blink of an eye. ACT's production, which will travel to Theatre Calgary in March, vividly illustrates this while leading us to a conclusion that feels both a little contrived and largely splendid satisfaction.
A Thousand Splendid Suns will run through Feb. 26 at the Geary Theater. Tickets are $25-$150. Call (415) 749-2228 or go to act-sf.org.