Regional Reviews: San Diego
A Thousand Splendid Suns
A young woman from Kabul, Laila (Nadine Malouf) prepares to leave her home in the war-torn city with her father Babi (Joseph Kamal) and mother Fariba (Lanna Joffrey). Before they are able to escape, a rocket leaves Laila wounded and unconscious and kills her parents. When Laila wakes up, she finds herself in the house of a shoemaker, Rasheed (Haysam Kadri), and his wife Mariam (Denmo Ibrahim). Not too long after being in Rasheed's home, he decides to make her his second wife. Laila soon finds out that her new husband isn't an easy man to deal with.
Sarma's two acts feel like distinct parts of the story. Act one introduces audiences to Laila and Mariam and their backstories, and shows how the two eventually become friends as Rasheed's temper begins to negatively impact them. While I quickly was invested in their lives, I felt, at times, that certain events are either condensed into small segments (we barely get to see Laila mourn for her parents) or over explained. Some of the information, such as how Mariam was born under unusual circumstances, are repeated. However, Sarma's script rises in quality after the intermission, when Laila and Mariam face a number of bleak and disappointing situations that are difficult to watch, especially one particular scene of physical abuse. What's distressing is that the sad aspects of the plot at home are pretty tame compared with the type of suffering other women face under the Taliban. This is expressed well in a sequence where rules from the Taliban are read aloud. There are, however, enough moments of humor and compassion to provide relief from the heaviest material.
Practically all the major emotional beats in the play are projected by the three stars of A Thousand Splendid Suns. Malouf shows how Laila goes from an innocent girl to a tough woman, and seeing this growth is empowering. Mariam has just as big of an arc, and Ibrahim is poignant as Rasheed's first wife, particularly when she opens up to Laila. While Ibrahim might try a little too hard to be childlike in Mariam's big flashback to her youth, her performance as a whole is compelling. Unlike his calmer wives, Rasheed is full of rage and threatens them on several occasions. Kadri is very believable and portrays Rasheed as the type of overbearing man who can exist in any part of the world.
Carey Perloff's direction in Rasheed's Kabul house feels very contained and scaled back. Her style is painfully realistic as Rasheed's dominance over his wives grows. Sections of the play outside of the house, though not always devoid of violence and heartbreak, provide an escape from the claustrophobic residence. Robert Wierzel's lighting, Jake Rodriguez's sound design, Ken MacDonald's scenery, and David Coulter's original music (which he performs) all blend in seamlessly throughout the scenes. Just as detailed are Linda Cho's costumes, which are inspired by traditional Afghan clothing.
Despite the dark tone, Sarma's depiction of Afghanistan attempts to be evenhanded. There are several good people who are part of the narrative, including Laila's childhood friend Tariq (Antoine Yared), Mariam's former tutor Mullah Faizullah, and a director of an orphanage Zaman (both Mullah and Zaman are played by Kamal). They provide moments of kindness and humanity, which are very much needed at certain points of the drama.
Unflinching in their treatment of religious culture and repression, Sarma and Perloff share a kind of tale that isn't often told in the theatre worldone that is both disturbing and touching.
A Thousand Splendid Suns, through June 17, 2018, at The Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego CA. Performances are Sundays through Saturdays. Tickets start at $30.00 and be purchased online at www.theoldglobe.org or by phone at 1-619-234-5623