There is little more jarring than an unmedicated woman undergoing a cesarean section as blank-eyed Taliban soldiers with rifles stand by. And yet, a handful of moments in A.C.T’s A Thousand Splendid Suns rival the hospital scene for the stomach-churning reaction it elicits. Throughout the show, the audience is at once drawn into a fully-formed world dripping with what feels, at its best, like the core of human experience and repelled by the same world’s colossal violence and sorrow.
A Thousand Splendid Suns—based on the eponymous book by award-winning Khaled Hosseini and adapted for the stage by Ursula Rani Sarma—is the story of three generations of Afghan women subject to abuse and misogyny during the historically turbulent period of the Afghan Civil War. Just minutes after the curtain opens, a shell strikes Laila’s (Nadine Malouf) home, leaving the intellectually curious teenager orphaned and injured. After her parents’ death, she is taken in by a neighbor, Rasheed (Haysam Kadri), and manipulated into becoming his second wife. And so begins the brutal and beautiful story of Laila, Rasheed’s first wife, Mariam (Kate Rigg), and Laila’s children, punctuated by flashbacks of Mariam’s harrowing mother (Denmo Ibrahim).
Carey Perloff’s direction is expert. The mesmerizing lighting, set design, and live music elevate her directorial vision and integrate seamlessly into the show’s narrative. A Thousand Splendid Suns’ visual perfection—the multi-use scenic archways, the masterful lighting, the wiry sun/moon that cyclically glides in front of the cyclorama—illustrates a relic of Kabul’s former splendor rather than a mirror of its current horror. This contrast, which only intensifies as the show progresses, forces the audience to grapple with what it means for one’s home to become unrecognizable. The symbiosis between the show’s design and its direction is most evident in a pair of split-stage scenes. The first depicts Rasheed’s simultaneous torture of his wives in separate rooms; the second shows Laila wiping dirt out of her wounds in the wreckage of her childhood home while Mariam cleans the floor of Laila’s soon-to-be house. In each, the lighting is so precise that the coincidence of two moments on one stage seems not just conceivable but almost non-negotiable.
The second act begins with Laila’s young daughter Aziza (Nikita Tewani) incredulously reading the new law of the land: “Attention, women: you will not laugh in public.” Samra’s commentary on the implications of womanhood in Kabul is most powerful in moments of contrast: not just when men and women are treated unequally, but also in the notable shift in women’s role pre and post-Taliban takeover. Laila, who is initially praised by Rasheed for her intellect, is suddenly berated for daring to use sophisticated language; Mariam states outright that the birth of a daughter is a greater sin than a miscarriage; Rasheed insists a daughter is so insignificant that, should he have one, he’ll let his wife name her; Aziza is forbidden from attending school, and starved so her brother can eat, and, and, and. . . Yet the terror of existing as a woman in the Afghanistan of the show is combatted by Laila and Mariam’s impenetrable friendship (bolstered by Malif and Rigg’s chemistry and each actor’s individual prowess). In just a few relishable moments, the two are able to achieve a semblance of victory, or at least progress—in conspiring to send Aziza to school, in sitting together for tea, and finally in Laila’s choice to name her third child after Mariam as a display of agency and love.
There are moments in which the scope of the play’s tragedy, which is deeply personal and far-reaching, feels uncontainable on the stage. Though the cast is talented without exception, there are scenes in which the content feels insurmountable, overwhelming, and lacking specificity. These small blips, however, are rendered irrelevant by Rigg’s magnetism, Tewani’s earnestness, and Kadri’s flickers of humanity amidst his terrifying demeanor?
Though the seconds of laughter and borderline-happiness are near impossible to savor for an audience who knows the future—that abusive husbands are rarely one-time offenders, that the Taliban will win the war, that this history so compellingly depicted continues to unravel. In spite of all this, and to the pleasure of the audience, Sarma and Perloff succeed in creating a work that forges hope in the capacity for relationships to provide joy in the face of all else.
Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne