Shining determination: A Thousand Splendid Suns at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater

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Last week I enjoyed a production of A Thousand Splendid Suns, a stage adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s novel by Ursula Rani Sarma and directed by Carey Perloff, at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. 

The title, from a 17th century poem written by Saib-e-Tabrizi as he passed through Afghanistan on his way from Persia to India, celebrates Kabul’s landscape and people. 

Taking place over the past forty years of Kabul’s history, the play reveals more of the Afghan nationals’ raw fortitude than the place’s evocative beauty. Yet, the strength and determination of main characters Laila and Mariam becomes its own kind of splendor. 

Each actor provided a strong performance, with just enough expression in their mannerisms and voices to seem affected by the drama’s weighty events without lapsing into melodrama. Laila and Mariam both conveyed the grim determination, and the hope, of their characters. And the children seemed similar to those everywhere, playing soccer, bickering with each other, not wanting to leave home to go to boarding school. 
 
The husband, Rasheed, although insensitive from the beginning, descended into cruelty with the pressures of life with two wives and an infant to support and as he faced violence himself outside the family home. He took up a lot of physical space on stage as he marched around giving orders and beatings, yet as soon as he left home the stage was dominated by women and children. Even while Rasheed was present, his wives stayed close rather than retreating into the background, They would not give him the chance to completely take over the stage, just as they continued to stand up to him to protect themselves and their children. 
 
Yet even he was somewhat of a complex character: although mostly in the wrong throughout the show, he did save Laila from death in a war zone and cared for her until she recovered from serious injuries. And he was not a Taliban official, simply a regular working man who experienced violence and mistreatment himself outside the home. 
 

The play’s score included unique sound effects from David Coulter, including the uncanny sound of a saw.  That gave the production a sense of minimalist timelessness, made me imagine that the action took place somewhere away from normal reality. At once I was in a faraway country and also in some sort of universal theater of the mind, grappling with human issues that transcended any specific locale. This score worked well if the intent was to make the setting seem different, to remind us that we were no longer in San Francisco and had to abandon preconceptions about how the characters’ world worked and how they would view events. 

While the story was traumatic, there were occasional moments of humor and grace (Laila’s thoughtful parents bickering as they prepared for a move because her father couldn’t decide which of his poetry collections to pack, Mariam holding Laila’s baby, Laila’s grown-up teen daughter reciting her geography lesson, both children singing bootleg Western music from the movie Titanic) that pulled us through.
 
I hadn’t yet read the book (although I plan to now!) so was surprised by everything. That made it easier for me to notice what might be confusing to someone who didn’t know the story. The plot definitely held my interest all the way to the end, and I never once looked at my watch or got restless. 
 
Family love and sacrificial caring seemed the prominent form of love within the drama. There is a thread of romance, with Laila and her kind boyfriend Tariq, who supposedly dies around the time her parents pass away. Yet the few scenes Laila and Tariq have together come after such intense pain and violence that they seem more like reprieves than romantic interludes. Mariam and Laila’s relationship with each other and with the children affected me much more as that had more time to develop.
 
Hosseini’s first book The Kite Runner explores fatherhood through a tale where a man learns to understand and forgive his own father while adopting and serving as a father figure to his half-nephew. In the same way, A Thousand Splendid Suns looks into motherhood from a broader perspective. The story illuminates some blood mother-daughter relationships. Both wives had mothers who had been complex characters yet loved their daughters and instilled in them the value of enduring through tough times. Yet, the primary ‘mother-daughter’ relationship takes place between Mariam and Laila as Mariam is so much older and protective and ultimately sacrificial towards Laila and her children. 
 
The play’s storyline has been changed somewhat from the novel. In the play, the drama begins with Laila’s parents’ death and her arrival at Rasheed and Mariam’s home, while the book spends time developing each woman’s story separately before the two meet. This change makes sense given how the medium of drama requires a story to be told through a limited number of staged scenes as opposed to the relative freedom of time and space in a novel. But crucial elements of backstory did get told through flashbacks, which worked in this production and didn’t confuse me because the characters’ expression and dialogue were so different from whatever had just happened in the present time that I knew right away I was seeing a flashback. 
 
It can be difficult to convey large-scale national events in a single stage set, but the cast and crew of A Thousand Splendid Suns managed to pull this off fairly effectively. 
 
As playwright Ursula Sarma points out, this was possible because much of the action of this drama takes place within Rasheed, Laila and Mariam’s family home. The women’s isolation and the limited news they received from the outside world contributed to the mood of unease and unpredictability. Things beyond their control happened to them while they held on to their family as best as they could. 
 
War and bombings were conveyed in subtle but clear ways: Rasheed entered the home with a bleeding wound and commented that ‘it was a war zone outside,’ and at other times the lights went way down, eerie music played, and men who looked like bandits rushed onto the stage.  This mostly worked, although I was confused at the beginning when the nondescript men tore apart Laila’s family home and carried off their possessions. In the next scene, though, the dialogue clarified that a military attack had destroyed the neighborhood and killed her parents. 
 
In college I chose to study international rather than Western literature, wanting to broaden my horizons and consider themes other than the existential angst and self-absorption I encountered too often in our current writing. And A Thousand Splendid Suns lacked awkward self-awareness and showed that we can still tell straightforward, un-ironic stories with the basic themes of courage, love, honor and sacrifice. 
A.C.T.’s production of A Thousand Splendid Suns runs through February 26th at the Geary Street Theater. Tickets are available here.