In American Conservatory Theater’s production of “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” co-produced with Theatre Calgary, Khaled Hosseini’s sweeping, 30-year-spanning novel of women and war in Afghanistan is transformed into an intimate story of unlikely friendship between two women.
In the hands of playwright Ursula Rani Sarma, “Suns” is stripped down to its barest human elements. When beautiful, newly orphaned 15-year-old Laila (Nadine Malouf) is pulled from the rubble of a bombing by Rasheed (Haysam Kadri), the much older man quickly coerces her into becoming his second wife. His first wife, the long-suffering Mariam (Kate Rigg), is immediately wary of her young replacement but quickly lets her guard down when the two wives find themselves allied against Rasheed’s violent abuse. Their powerful bond becomes their solace in the prison of their brutish husband’s home, a microcosm for the wider confines of Taliban-ruled Kabul.
Where the novel traces Mariam and Laila’s lives from childhood up through their marriages to Rasheed, Sarma’s adaptation begins at the moment these women meet. In centralizing the friendship of these women and weaving trimmed versions of their extended backstories into the narrative, ACT’s “Suns” becomes a leaner and more theatrically practical story. Yet in doing so, something of the specific story of Afghanistan is forfeited for a more universal tale of womanhood.
Rather than exhibiting the thriving, progressive, artistic Kabul of before, the characters must tell us what was once there. The music too — a haunting, metallic score from David Coulter — is an abstraction rather than a product of Afghan culture. It’s an understandable adjustment, but it does not drive home what precisely is lost as powerfully as it could to American audiences who are largely unfamiliar with Afghanistan apart from images of wartime destruction.
The first act takes a while to find its footing. At first, the names and phrases of Afghanistan seem to sit oddly on the actors’ tongues, like an overeager date painstakingly pronouncing foreign items on a menu too perfectly. There are also some oddities the audience must settle into, as when Kate Rigg plays Mariam as a young child in a momentarily jarring flashback sequence. Incredibly, Rigg sells it, capturing the hopeful child buried deep within the body of a betrayed and understandably bitter older woman.
Once the exposition is in place, it is impossible not to be swept up in Mariam and Laila’s story. Carey Perloff’s fluid direction, aided greatly by Ken MacDonald’s spare scenic design, helps build that momentum. Movable patterned arches and tables are rearranged onstage to quickly metamorphosize from Rasheed’s claustrophobic house to glimpses of the outside world — a hospital or an orphanage. By the time the first act ends on a gripping cliffhanger, the stage is set for an absorbing, exposition-free second half.
The conclusion of “Suns” is undeniably melodramatic, but melodrama is suited to a story of unbelievable female endurance. Thwarted escapes, unanesthetized surgeries, reunited lovers and murder all feel rooted due to the strength of Mariam and Laila’s characters.
On the surface, “Suns” is a project of humanizing the women behind the burqa, but in depicting Kabul under the thumb of extremist rule, the play also holds an uncomfortable mirror up to campaigns of female oppression in the United States.
If ACT’s “Suns” never reaches the heights of Hosseini’s novel, this adaptation does bring the lives of Afghan women — women who are both Muslims and would-be refugees — to vivid, tangible life at a time when their stories require telling. It would take a stone or a committed bigot to emerge from the theater dry-eyed. It seems significant that “A Thousand Splendid Suns” was co-produced across a border, though the Canadian border is perhaps America’s least contentious one. It is maybe too neat a metaphor for what theater should be: a way to reach across borders, especially those that are most in danger of being closed.
“A Thousand Splendid Suns” is currently playing at the American Conservatory Theatre until Sunday, February 26.