It is fitting that a stage adaptation of a novel begins with a sequence of images like those on a book cover: Men and women in kurtas use long carpets to drag hookahs, birdcages, and thrones across the stage. The sun and the mountainside are rendered in wires, like pen-and-ink sketches made sculptural, and the sky and the ground have been touched with brush strokes that could be either calligraphy or henna.
Ursula Rani Sarma’s adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s novel A Thousand Splendid Suns opens in 1992, with Kabul in chaos. Three years after Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan, the mujahideen are preparing to take the city. As 14-year-old Laila (Mirian Katrib) and her family pack their books and prepare to join other refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan, an artillery shell hits their house, killing both her parents. She awakens in the house of neighbors Rasheed (Haysam Kadri, who also does fine work as the fight captain) and Mariam (Hend Ayoub), who have taken her in as she recovers from the blast.
Upon hearing that her childhood friend Tariq (Antoine Yared, primarily seen in Laila’s reveries), has died in Peshawar, she realizes she has nowhere to go: Rumors of mujahideen raping unaccompanied women abound. Given the perceived dishonor of an unmarried Laila living in the house, Rasheed, over Mariam’s objections, proposes making Laila his second wife. Laila hastily accepts his reasoning, the first of many self-justifications for Rasheed’s ever-tightening authority over the household as society collapses elsewhere in the city. As succeeding factions take control of Kabul—first, the mujahideen and later, the Taliban—he takes license from their misogyny to become increasingly violent toward the women under his roof.
Though the two wives are initially set against one another, they become friends and allies through Laila’s daughter, Aziza (Nikita Tewani). By the time Laila is ready to deliver her son, Zalmai (played on opening night by Ravi Mampara, who alternates with Justin Xavier Poydras) the Taliban have already denied the women’s hospital both anesthetics and antibiotics.
A Thousand Splendid Suns is not the first time one of Hosseini’s novels has been adapted to the stage––Matthew Spangler’s adaptation of The Kite Runner premiered in 2009 at the now defunct San Jose Repertory Theater. Adaptation requires some plot aspects be emphasized, altered, or elided due to the constraints of the stage, and Sarma’s script focuses on the succession of episodes centering on Laila as protagonist and audience surrogate, with Mariam’s backstory relegated to an extended flashback. With the exception of Rasheed, who continually monologues his increasing cruelty, we have little access to the interiority of the characters. Laila and Mariam are known more through their torments and oppression than by how they perceive themselves. Likewise, outside the identification of the burqa as a Pashtun custom, the cultural divide between Pashtun Rasheed and Tajik Mariam and Laila is left unexplored. Perhaps doing so was seen as necessary to allow English-speaking audiences in Western countries to identify with Afghani women.
However, the artful staging by director Carey Perloff, who originally commissioned the adaptation in her role as artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, along with the collaborators from the original 2017 production who have returned for the East Coast premiere, prevent the proceedings from being entirely didactic. The visual elements are extraordinary: Ken MacDonald’s sets, defined by portals and arches fashioned from metal lattices that are either wheeled into place or lowered from the heavens allow for quick scene changes. Stephen Buescher’s choreography simulates slowed-down and sped-up camera effects. Costume designer Linda Cho’s embroidered kurtas and patterned scarves are beautifully lit by Robert Wierzel.
At Arena Stage, where the audience may regularly include makers of policy and interpreters of law, some artful didacticism may be necessary. The spectacle could be seen as an argument that human rights, and specifically women’s rights, must be a foreign policy consideration. It also reminds us how, even in a country like Afghanistan, where before the war, women worked as doctors, lawyers, and university professors, authorities offering protection can quickly become oppressors. One may also wonder if Associate Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Samuel Alito, who were both in attendance on opening night, will discuss that slippery slope in corridors of the Supreme Court.
To March 1 at 1101 6th St. SW. $56–$115. (202) 554-9066. arenastage.org.