Review: A friendship built from oppression displayed in ACT’s searing ‘Splendid Suns’

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Mariam (Denmo Ibrahim) holds the daughter of Laila (Nadine Malouf, above) in the return engagement of “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” playing through July 29th at the Geary Theater. (Jim Cox photo)

Theirs is a bond like no other.

It is not hard to see what makes Mariam and Laila come together. Both existing in a world of suffocating oppression, tethered to a man who is as vile as they come.

In the return engagement of American Conservatory Theater’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” running through Aug. 5th at the Geary Theater, a slick staging and a minimal, visual feast provide the backdrop for the adaptation of the Khaled Hosseini bestseller, directed magnificently by Carey Perloff.

Despite a few moments where the drama sagged a bit too much, the faithful adaptation penned by Ursula Rani Sarma packs an emotional punch, a stark reminder of the brutality of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime and its suffocation of women.

At first, Rasheed (Haysam Kadri) doesn’t seem like a horrible person, presenting for one fleeting moment a somewhat pragmatic argument for taking on a second wife. While there is a sliver of hope that his intentions are genuine, it doesn’t take long for ugliness to take hold. It is in the brutal reality in which his new infatuation for Laila conveniently sets aside Mariam (Denmo Ibrahim), a woman who cannot provide him a child.

Unfortunately for Rasheed, the love from Laila (Nadine Malouf) will not be possible, since she has a love of her own, the tender Tariq (Antoine Yared), he of the slick-backed hair and empathetic limp.

Hosseini’s story gets more brutal as it continues. There is abuse, a changing cultural landscape that forces women into the shadows, and the disbelief that an education for a young girl in the new, mid 1990s Afghanistan is not a privilege or a luxury, but an impossibility.

As a young mother, Laila struggles to keep the baby calm, a baby who most definitely senses the fear and tension of a woman forced into motherhood too soon. But this is where the bond between both women truly forms. The crying of little Aziza doesn’t stop, but Mariam brings forth a calm to the baby. The calm in the midst of this putrid man which connects them ultimately brings them closer.

All three of these principal characters are played with a forceful precision. Where they peak is through the many violent episodes they are forced to undertake, violence that is beautifully choreographed by Stephen Buescher and fight consultant Jonathan Rider. But notice how Kadri plays a character who is unraveling slowly as his insecurities begin to take over. His rage is the rage of the Taliban, a group who kill over the simplest hint of joy. His initial reticence of the connection these women share becomes full-on raged jealousy.

In the end, what happens elicited the strangest reactions from a large segment of the audience who probably thought they were watching some kind of Thelma and Louise revenge fantasy. Split-second decisions are made, and the consequences are vicious.

Two other characters came in the form of scenic designer Ken Macdonald and musician David Coulter. Macdonald’s set is brilliant with its vibrant color palette, and some wonderful wagon units that created a plethora of shapes and realities. These are units that reflected both that which is wide open and that which lurks in the shadows. The lighting design of Robert Wierzel and costume design of Linda Cho contributed beautifully to the set, unifying the technical aspects of the production with wonderment.

Coulter’s music is sharp and jarring, brilliantly manipulating the sentiments of the audience at every turn. His performance with a host of authentic, middle Eastern sounds filled and shaped the world succinctly.

Hosseini has proven over the years to be one of the great chroniclers of middle Eastern life. As one who considers “The Kite Runner” one of my favorite pieces of literature, experiencing this piece is certainly a thrill and a necessity in order to provide diverse voices on grand stages.

The story of these women is the story of friendship, trust, longing and love in a world that wanted none of that.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

American Conservatory Theater presents “A Thousand Splendid Suns”
Based on the novel by Khaled Hosseini
Adapted for the stage by Ursula Rani Sarma
Directed by Carey Perloff
The word: A searing portrayal of two women forced into the shadows in Afghanistan during the Taliban’s brutal regime.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
Through July 29th
Running Time: Two hours, 35 minutes with one intermission
The Geary Theater
405 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA
Tickets range from $22 – $120
For tickets, call (415) 749-2248 or visit the official website

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