“A Thousand Splendid Suns,” an emotionally stirring stage adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s novel now at the Old Globe, brings old-fashioned narrative techniques to a story about a country that seems fated to remain forever in the headlines.
In “The Kite Runner,” Hosseini humanized the tumultuous history of modern Afghanistan in a novel centered on male characters buffeted by the strife of a society in constant upheaval. In “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” set in Kabul in roughly the same period, the violence and terror of the Soviet invasion followed by the rise of the Taliban are captured in the domestic saga of two women enduring the brutal tyranny of marriage to the same increasingly unhinged man.
This theatrical presentation, a collaboration between San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater and Canada’s Theatre Calgary, is in many ways more modern than the novel that inspired it. Directed with a sure hand by Carey Perloff, the production is more atmospherically suggestive than literal.
Perloff, who’s stepping down after a long and distinguished tenure as artistic director of A.C.T., where “Suns” had its premiere last year, has created a theatrical environment that’s agile enough to handle the novel’s sweep of history. The staging, buoyed by ethereal music composed and performed by David Coulter and the mood-shifting lighting of Robert Wierzel, employs minimal scenery.
There are just a few props and furnishings on a set by Ken MacDonald that keeps the country’s rugged and ever-more militarized landscape in view. Linda Cho’s costumes track the way the color drains from everyday life in Kabul.
The adaptation by Ursula Rani Sarma effectively telescopes the epic plot. The fluid structure, which allows the past to make brief explanatory returns, accommodates significant leaps in time. Yet the drama betrays some of the limitations of Hosseini’s writing.
For those not members of a bestseller book club, the narrative setup and introduction of characters can seem distinctly 19th century. Information is fed to us in convenient dollops. And the reliance on unbearable suspense as a narrative engine might seem excessive even by Charles Dickens standards.
The history that is covered is traumatic, but, as writers as varied as Primo Levi, Marguerite Duras and Toni Morrison have shown, historical atrocity doesn’t necessitate melodramatic formats. Hosseini’s cultural project, however, is intended for a wider audience. He wants to change hearts and minds, and if that means recycling cruder artistic methods, so be it.
The upside is that once the story of “A Thousand Splendid Suns” is underway, it’s hard not to be swept along by the emotional current. The barrage of terrible events is testing, to be sure. But the precious humanity of the female characters who persevere through the most heinous circumstances holds us captive. Theatergoers are rewarded for their vicarious pains not with a fairy tale ending but with a clarification of what redeems us as human beings.
Nadine Malouf plays Laila, whom we first meet as a bright teenager, the highly cultivated daughter of Babi, a poetry-loving university man (Joseph Kamal). As the family prepares to leave Kabul amid the chaotic hostilities of 1992, a shell strikes their home, killing Laila’s parents and leaving her seriously injured.
A neighbor, Rasheed (Haysam Kadri), rescues Laila from the rubble and brings her to his house, where she’s cared for by his wife, Mariam (Denmo Ibrahim), who quickly suspects her husband’s motivations. After Laila recovers her strength, Rasheed pressures her into becoming his second wife. As she happens to be already pregnant by her true love, Tariq (Antoine Yared), who she’s told is dead, she has no choice but to accept the offer.
Mariam, forced by her husband to serve his new wife, naturally resents Laila. But her helpless affection for Laila’s baby combined with Rasheed’s worsening domestic tyranny help establish a bond between the women that will prove to be a bulwark against male despotism and brutality, both of which become the law of the land once the Taliban takes over.
“A Thousand Splendid Suns” is written to acquaint a Western audience with the burka-clad women who long for education, professional opportunities and a society that doesn’t restrict their every move. Laila and Mariam are casualties not just of war but of the misogynistic regime that has exploited Afghanistan’s unending political chaos.
Laila, Mariam and Aziza (Nikita Tewani), Laila’s daughter who grows up in a society rapidly foreclosing her options, have one overwhelming challenge — to outlast the assault on their freedom and dignity. “Endure,” the advice of Nana, Mariam’s stony mother (Lanna Joffrey), becomes their common goal. It is the least — and, for now, the most — they can hope for.
The strained dialogue leads to some wooden acting, especially in the early going. But Malouf and Ibrahim grow in complexity and pathos as their characters tap into hidden resources to survive their plight.
As Kadri’s Rasheed, an ambiguously avuncular figure at first, becomes more flagrantly villainous, the women lean on each other for sustenance. Their stoicism and stealthy support sustain not only their spirits but also the morale of theatergoers, who crave some moral light in the harrowing darkness.
“A Thousand Splendid Suns” doesn’t let anyone off the hook. The artistic shortcomings have more to do with storytelling style than with romantic resolutions. But the narrative casts a potent spell. So invested was the audience in Laila and Mariam’s predicament that when the climactic household confrontation finally arrived, a few spectators at the Saturday matinee I attended boisterously cheered the women on.
A photo with a New York Times story on Monday serves to remind why books and plays about the human toll of this war-ravaged nation are so essential. A young boy who lost his legs when a leftover bomb exploded in his neighborhood stares out at us, demanding to be seen in all his irreducible humanity. Taking in such stories isn’t easy, but turning a blind eye won’t make them go away.
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‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays (call for exceptions); ends June 17
Where: Old Globe Theatre’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, Balboa Park, San Diego
Tickets: $30 and up
Information: (619) 234-5623 or www.theoldglobe.org