A Thousand Splendid Suns, now onstage at the Old Globe Theatre, celebrates the resilience of the human spirit in an inspirational hymn familiar from countless other literary fantasies dating back to the earliest recorded memories of the human race.
Perseverance, goes this ancient refrain, will always pay off, making the torturous journey all the more fascinating and suspenseful. It’s a formula so effective that it’s taught as gospel in fiction-writing classes. Put the ship at risk! Strip the hero of resources! Start the celebration of evil’s triumph! Maybe even sacrifice an admired supporting character. Victory, when it inevitably comes, will be the sweeter.
The effectiveness of this as a story-telling device is obvious. But it is worth noting that some pathways just seem more uplifting than others. What honor is to be gained from individual survival if the evil continues to thrive? Some, probably, but enough for rejoicing?
Or are we just being set up for a sequel?
This play, the work of Ursula Rani Sarma based on a successful novel by Khaled Hosseini, relates a bitter tale set during the emergence of the Afghanistan Civil War and the Taliban movement at the end of the 20thCentury. The elegiac conclusion includes no mention of suicide attacks on the U.S.A. in September, 2001, and barely references Osama bin Laden or Al Qaeda.
If the spectacle of women and children being whipped and starved in aid of achieving some ideal result is what’s wanted, this is the shop for it.
I don’t know which disgusts me more, a culture that allows, encourages and even requires such destructive inequality between rulers and the ruled or the self-righteous individuals who exploit that culture for their own purposes.
Comparable outrages may be happening within mortar range of the Old Globe Theatre at Balboa Park, but they’re not institutionalized and enforced by agents of the government. In this Afghanistan, the bully rules with a cruelty often breathtaking.
Both playwright and novelist have done commendable work in finding characters worth pondering. What’s missing is comparable insight on how this mess turned so malignant. A frequent theme, never resolved, is where blame belongs, whose fault is it? The country’s prevailing religion preaches a benevolence that is hard to find in this story. More and more the question becomes, is survival worth this price.
What saves the play in this production is the glow of Carey Perloff’s staging. The long-time artistic director of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater commissioned the piece and wrapped it in a poetic gauze that floats on stubborn romanticism.
The outrage of brutish beatings; poetry read as bombs burst ever nearer; the struggle of a female medical team, clad in billowing burqas, to perform a cesarean birth without anesthesia; the desperation of a starving family with but one crust of bread… Perloff finds ways to bring many of the author’s images into lyrical focus without melodrama.
The scenery by Canadian Ken MacDonald is a major asset, dominated by a horizon of abstract, eloquent flexibility as lit by Robert Wierzel’s bold yet subtle palette of color washes. Linda Cho’s costumes, familiar now from decades of news photographs, anchor all to grim reality.
A major element in support of Perloff’s magic-making is the original music written and performed (mostly) on a flexible handsaw. There seems to be some electronic enhancement but Coulter’s presence, and the exquisite care with which he weaves the haunting airs, is richly stimulating.
Many of the actors were aboard for previous productions at ACT and in Calgary and all, including the newcomers, perform with seamless passion. Haysam Kadri is both moving and repellant as the head of the stunted Kabul household where most of the play is set, a vivid portrait of moral flab. Nadine Malouf is intense and moving as a girl first sheltered and then hurled into chaotic maturity. And Denmo Ibrahim, though starting slow in sullen despair, achieves an ennobling result.
There are characters which stir curiosity – Antoine Yared as a hapless lame suitor, Nikita Tewani as a maiden already being warped, Joseph Kamal as a dreamy intellectual – but there will be no time to follow them. Unless the misty final scene is in fact a setup for a sequel.
I confess that, despite all the art and craft on display here, my sense of loathing and outrage at the world on display largely erases further curiosity.
(Continues on the Old Globe Theatre’s Shiley Stage at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through June 17, 2018.)