The Afghanistan of A Thousand Splendid Suns is not one of splendor. The play's title is a reference to brighter, long past moments in Kabul's history — when women were once freer than they are in the timeframe of the play — and instead, the setting of the work is a harsh one. It's a place to be endured, particularly by the women central to its narrative who are essentially captive under authoritarian male rule.
When the parents of 15-year-old Laila, sweetly and brilliantly played at a variety of ages by Nadine Malouf, are killed by a shell blast in their home, Laila quickly becomes the second wife of her neighbor Rasheed (a villainous, desperate Haysam Kadri). Rasheed's first wife, Mariam (Kate Rigg), is initially threatened by Laila, but, maybe too quickly for the drama of the piece, comes to work together with her. After all, they share a mutual enemy in Rasheed, a man who is essentially their captor, and a stand-in for the authoritarian males of the city outside their home, — the Soviets, mujahideen, and Taliban, over the course of the historical period covered in the work.
To Laila, Mariam recalls her mother's counsel — "Endure," she was told as a girl. Endure what? "Don't you worry about that," her mother goes on, "there will be no shortage of things." Sadly, she's right, and Laila's and Mariam's pain and trauma — and soon that of Laila's daughter Aziza (Nikita Tweani) — is also the audience's. Enduring it is difficult, at times, though the work seems to think it's beneficial that we participate in it, if only for our education. When it gets particularly painful — a cesarian performed without anesthetic, the set itself echoing the surgery — that's tough, but effective.
Ultimately, Irish Indian playwright Ursula Rani Sarma's adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's 2007 novel, an inter-generational epic in the vein of his first hit book The Kite Runner has too much exposition to cover, even in two hours and forty minutes, and the first half of the play plods along with too few dramatic beats as directed by ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff. To get their words out, actors nearly talk over one another, and there's little room for reflection or for the characters to convey their interiority.
Likely realizing this challenge, Perloff cleverly navigates it at times: While we watch Laila and Mariam waiting for a man to buy them a train ticket, for example, Laila asks how much time has gone by. "Five minutes," Mariam tells her after just several seconds. "And now?" Laila asks again moments later. "And now ten," Mariam replies. At moments like this the fast pacing becomes surreal and particularly interesting: Mariam remembering her mother, for instance, floating across the stage, or Laila recalling her former love, Tariq, as limping on and off of it.
An excellent score composed and played by David Coulter (Kronos Quartet) smooths over the faster, rougher transitions and gives a through-line to the work, whose second half is better paced and more rewarding. There's dramatic payoff, but especially in its accelerated form, it's heavy handed. One line, that “Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger will always find a woman," provides thematic direction, and the irony of men keeping women cooped up and covered up for fear, they claim, of other bad men in the outside world, is a powerful animating irony.
The claustrophobia the characters experience is conveyed well to the audience: Spare, surrealistic set design from Ken Macdonald pens us in elegantly, and Perloff's use of that set is at times brilliant. A table that's flipped upright on its legs becomes a closet or basement holding Laila and her infant child, while a flipped bed frame becomes nearly a cage for Mariam as she's beaten by Rasheed.
There's power in bearing witness to their pain, as they bear witness to and provide support for one another as well. But audiences won't be blamed for wanting to depart from Rasheed's cruel world as much as they want Laila and Mariam to.
A Thousand Splendid Suns runs through February 26 at ACT's Geary Theater. Tickets here.