American Conservatory Theater’s ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ is much-needed story that earns right to the stage

Jim Cox/Courtesy

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Spanning over four decades of Afghan history and the lives of two women, “A Thousand Splendid Suns” was already an ambitious story for the pages of a novel. On the stage, ambition becomes an outright challenge that the theatrical adaptation largely rises to meet, albeit not without necessary sacrifices.

Playwright Ursula Rani Sarma rose to that challenge brilliantly, reshaping the narrative until the play was born here in the Bay Area. It premiered last year at the Geary Theater in San Francisco — a venue of the American Conservatory Theater — and returns to the theater for a limited two-week run through July 29.

Rather than staying loyal to the novel, which takes place sequentially and begins with Mariam’s (Denmo Ibrahim) childhood, Sarma starts the play with Laila’s (Nadine Malouf) parents being killed after a rocket strikes their home. She is then saved by Rasheed (Haysam Kadri, who originated the role), a much older neighbor who wishes to take her as his second wife. Armed with the knowledge that she will be unable to fend for herself in an unstable Afghanistan, Laila accepts the proposal — much to the chagrin of Rasheed’s first wife, Mariam.

In order to prioritize the narrative of the two women’s friendship, much of the novel’s extensive reported history of Afghanistan is shaved off. Audience members don’t leave with a new historical understanding of Afghanistan, but they do leave having almost certainly cried — and with a new understanding of what it means to be a woman in Afghanistan.

As the story unfolds, it becomes evident that Rasheed is an abusive husband and that Mariam has had to suffer through his outrages for 18 years. When Laila defends Mariam against his physical violence, the women establish a close rapport that comes to resemble that of a mother and daughter.

With most of the play taking place in Rasheed’s house, the set is relatively simple and uses only a few interchangeable props to depict different settings. The same table that adorns Mariam’s kitchen is also used as a door that entraps Laila and baby Aziza during one of Rasheed’s most violent outlashes. Free of the distractions that can come from a busy set, Mariam and Laila’s shared resilience in the face of oppression is the centerpiece of the play.

Slowly piecing together the lives of Mariam and Laila rather than telling everything all at once as in the novel, the play presents a more dramatic narrative. Ibrahim acting out Mariam’s life in flashbacks, while Laila stands to the side watching in horror, provides some of the most impactful moments.

Jim Cox/Courtesy

Jim Cox/Courtesy

Changes such as these make it completely clear from the start that this is undeniably a drama — one that doesn’t pretend to be the same historical account that Khaled Hosseini’s novel is.

Many of the didactic elements of the novel are lost in translation when the story takes the stage, although the audience is still allocated bare-bones historical context through the characters’ dialogue. There are frequent references to the Taliban and the Soviets, but without the elaboration that Hosseini’s novel provides, these threats morph into general, patriarchal Middle Eastern despotism rather than a portrayal of a distinctly Afghan experience.

And because the play begins at the height of the political conflict, the audience is thrown into war-torn Afghanistan without having seen the shift from peace to unrest that the novel carefully depicts. Whereas the original narrative is also a story of Afghanistan’s resilience, the play sacrifices this in order to focus on emotional drama.

Sarma’s “Suns” is less of a teaching tool and more of an emotional unraveling of what it means to be a woman, not just in Afghanistan but also in the global South — while the play is different from the book, it emphasizes a section of the narrative that is deserving of due emphasis. In today’s political climate, it is stories like these that are more needed than ever before.

“A Thousand Splendid Suns” will run at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater through July 29.

Contact Alex Jiménez at [email protected].