Based on the best-selling novel by Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns, going on now until March 1 at Arena Stage, tells the story of an unlikely friendship between two Afghan women beset by hostile (male) forces both large and small, set against the backdrop of the rise of the Taliban in Kabul.
Honestly, if the very phrase “Afghan women” doesn’t make you feel like you’re not doing enough to make the world a better place, then you should think about it more. And you’d better believe this play is hella depressing. Depressing, but compelling.
Laila (Mirian Katrib) is a teenage girl when we first meet her, packing up with her parents to evacuate to Pakistan. When they are killed by a shell, she is taken in by neighbors Rasheed (Haysam Kadri) and Mariam (Hend Ayoub); the former isn’t as friendly as he seems at first, while the latter isn’t as belligerent. As adapted by Ursula Rani Sarma and directed by Carey Perloff, we follow these three over the years (and into some smoothly segued flashbacks) as children and the rise of a fundamentalist government complicate an already dicey picture.
The story bumps into more than a couple cliches, and its louder confrontations don’t always pop, but the three lead performances are solid, and my word is there some pretty things to look at on stage. David Coulter’s music and Linda Cho’s costumes are both pleasing, but the set from Ken Macdonald (with lights by Robert Wierzel) are storybook gorgeous, with a kabuki sun and wire-mesh mist on distant mountains. Just the sight for eyes made sore by domestic abuse and systemic misogyny, and there’s lots of both.
I wasn’t as moved as some in the audience by Splendid Suns‘ tale of resilience and sisterhood in the face of repression, but it does come with a powerful mix of grim hardship and (nearly) optimistic endurance. If you loved the book, I’m sure you’ll love the show. And this is without question the kind of stories we should be telling.
Will things ever truly get better for the women of Afghanistan? Without spoiling the ending, this play doesn’t seem sure, which is an honest answer. And honestly depressing.