A Largely Splendid Performance with the Intensity of a Thousand Suns
It’s fitting that a story focusing on the resiliency of women in the face of what is, for us Westerners, unfathomable and inhumane living conditions, is carried by its two female leads. And though some of its other representations don’t measure up to the standard set by Mirian Katrib and Deena Aziz, A Thousand Splendid Suns is an often-intense production that does the topic justice.
The play largely takes place in Kabul, Afghanistan, during a particularly tumultuous time in that country’s history. It opens during the post-Soviet invasion in-fighting by the Mujahideen and continues through the advent of the rise of the Taliban, and the oppressive restrictions imposed by its brand of religious leadership.
It’s an intense setting for an intense production. And there are moments that, for some audience members, are hard to watch. During the opening night performance, there were audible gasps during certain scenes—including some incredibly choreographed whipping scenes. At the climactic moment of the play, some of the audience burst into applause—maybe not the ideal reaction for a theatre production, but one that represented the need for a cathartic release of tension.
The story centres around the life of Mirian Katrib’s Laila, a young girl who loses her family and home during shelling. She is taken in and nursed to health by Deena Aziz’s Mariam, on the insistence of her husband Rasheed (Anousha Alamian). The older Rasheed eventually takes the teenage Laila as his second wife, and the remainder of the play is an examination of the transition from rivals to familial bonds for the two women, in the face of an increasingly demanding and violent Rasheed.
A Thousand Splendid Suns takes a few moments to hit its stride. As great as Katrib is playing Laila as a young mother and an aged-beyond-her years woman, her attempts to portray Laila as a young teen are less than convincing. Her performance is distractingly infantile at first, but she grows into her role as her character ages. Aziz, as Mariam, is compelling right from the start. From her initial steel-gazed hatred of Laila, to her eventual redemption and embrace of a non-traditional mother-daughter relationship and the love she’s been long denied, she is the emotional anchor of the show.
That grounding brought about by her performance is importance as Alamian, as Rasheed, sucks up a lot of the play’s oxygen, especially in the second act as he becomes increasingly volatile and one-note in his anger. His slow burn during the first act is entertaining to watch and he successfully crafts a character that is uniformly despised by the characters and audience alike. The other secondary characters are fairly stilted in their presentation and aren’t given much depth beyond their roles as proto-McGuffins.
This play benefits from solid direction and fight direction, both executed by the same person, Haysam Kadri. This is a production that features some disturbingly realistic slaps, whips, and strikes. The combination of effective stage blocking, alignment with sound cues, and effective fight choreography, results in believable—and necessary—violence that helps to propel the narrative.
The set is beautifully simplistic. The backdrop is a stylized sun and mountain presentation that effectively transitioned to mandala-esque decorative backdrop during the indoors scenes. The cast transitioned the stage from a Spartan home set-up to a collection of moving doorways, used to convey movement or external locations, such as a hospital. Lighting and music were expertly integrated to the production—hardly noticeable on their own, but perfectly complementary to the action on the stage and serving to amplify moments of tension.
A Thousand Splendid Suns is an examination of cultural norms that seem foreign to us in every sense of the word. It effectively presents traditions that are seen through the lens of our modern sensibilities. It compels us to appreciate the role that religion and paternalism can play on creating systemic barriers to keep women, in particular, in poverty. And it does it in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the primary focus of the play, an ultimately uplifting exploration of a non-traditional mother-daughter-esque relationship set against the backdrop of socio-cultural horrors.