Act 1 is so boring that friends who left at intermission expressed their condolences when I told them I was staying.
In Ursula Rani Sarma’s script, which is based on Khaled Hosseini’s novel, a young Afghani woman named Laila finds herself trapped in a nightmare marriage. Her husband Rasheed abuses both Laila and his first wife Mariam.
A Thousand Splendid Suns, which is set mostly in Kabul, explores the atrocities of war as well as the atrocities visited upon women and girls under the Taliban. Its most significant gift is that it gives a visceral sense of the relentless cruelty of that particular brand of gender-based oppression. Rasheed’s attacks include verbal insults, coerced sex, and beatings with a belt.
But, while relentlessness may be the hallmark of many people’s experience in these circumstances, it’s not narratively interesting. Dramatically, Act 1 is inert. The essential dynamic — Rasheed is a beast while Laila and Mariam are victims — simply repeats itself. On opening night, some members of the audience were so desperate for the act to end — or at least so it seemed to me — that they burst into applause when the lights dimmed for a scene change about three-quarters of the way through.
A central problem here is that, as written, Rasheed is two-dimensional — and flat villains kill storytelling by starving it of the potential for surprise.
Just before the act break, the narrative finally starts to coalesce: relationships shift and change seems possible. Act 2 is better for it, although one of its major plot points is predictable.
Unfortunately, Haysam Kadri’s direction doesn’t always help the script out. He does include some persuasively cinematic visual moments. When the show opens, Afghani figures drag huge lengths of fabric across the stage. That fabric is weighted down by possessions: a desk, a pile of books, a vase of flowers. And, then there’s a passenger on one of the lengths: Laila as an innocent teenager. Other staged moments feel melodramatic, however, including a representation of surgery that involves a silent scream, a blinding lighting cue, and an image of blood splattered across the back wall.
Under Kadri’s direction, most of the actors struggle to find nuance in the simplistic script. Two of them succeed impressively. Playing Mariam, Deena Aziz is always interesting to watch. Emotionally, there’s a whole lot going on in this characterization and those emotions are subtly embodied; they’re never forced or illustrated. One of the most pleasing transitions in the show comes when Mariam transforms instantaneously from an embittered middle-aged woman into her buoyant child self. And that’s the moment when A Thousand Splendid Suns starts to find itself: Mariam’s story involves the most change, so it’s the most interesting.
I also very much appreciated Abraham Asto’s presence as Tariq, Laila’s true love, a boy from her neighbourhood who disappeared from her life but reappears in flashbacks. Every time he pops up he’s a different age and it’s a pleasure to see how discreetly Asto lives those changes — and how consistently, skinlessly charming he is.
Watching other actors, I was sometimes more aware of the unfair burden this script places on them. Playing Leila, Anita Majumdar works hard and gets decent results, although she sometimes falls into the trap of telegraphing her character’s reactions. And, although Rasheed is woefully underwritten, Anousha Alamian manages to deliver a performance of some integrity. But director Kadri has set a showy performance style and the whole production, including these characterizations, suffers from it.
That said, the grandness of the overall conception finds its most successful expression in Ken MacDonald’s set and the lighting design by Robert Wierzel’s and Andrew F. Griffith. As a backdrop, MacDonald gives us a giant panel with arabesque cutouts that nestles just above a skyline that evokes the mountains that surround Kabul. Wierzel and Griffith pour rich colours through the cutouts and create dramatic effects elsewhere, conjuring isolation with a harsh rectangle of light, for instance. The delicately cut muddied-teal woodwork of MacDonald’s set pieces is also pleasing. And David Coulter’s original music enhances the story without being intrusive.
The content of A Thousand Splendid Suns is worth exploring — but this script and production do a mediocre job of it.
A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS By Ursula Rani Sarma based on the book by Khaled Hosseini. Directed by Haysam Kadri and based on the original staging by Carey Perloff for the American Conservatory Theater’s production. An Arts Club production in partnership with the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Wednesday, September 18. Continues until October 13. Tickets.
NEVER MISS A REVIEW: To get links to my reviews plus the best of international theatre coverage, sign up for FRESH SHEET, my free weekly e-newsletter.
And, if you want to keep independent criticism alive in Vancouver, check out my Patreon page. Newspapers are dying and arts journalism is often the first thing they cut. Fight back!