Monday, January 27, 2020

"A Thousand Splendid Suns" at Arena Stage

Content warning: onstage traumatic miscarriage and pregnancy delivery, interpersonal violence, sounds of shelling, onstage bombing, onstage murder, onstage execution, onstage suicide

While I was aware of the source material I went in cold.
I think the play stands on its own, but it was pretty clear to me that they were moving through a lot of material.
The play takes place in Kabul, Afghanistan. While the program contains a brief history of Afghanistan, the timing of the start of the play is unclear. Kabul is experiencing rocket attacks, and as such, Laila and her parents are packing up to go. Her childhood friend's family left a few days before.
The house is shelled and Laila is the only survivor, rescued by a neighbor who then suggests he become his second wife.
She agrees quickly. Book readers likely had access to her reasoning, playgoers will have to wait some time to find out why. Mariam and Laila are at odds, until Laila intervenes to stop Rasheed from beating Mariam. Then they become close. Laila begins telling others Mariam is her mother. Again, book readers might have more insight on this. As the rules and requirements in Afghanistan shifted and changed, as Laila births a daughter and then a son, it was clear why she worried, why she dreamed of escape, and why of course she wanted Mariam with her.
I don't know if the rules and traditions surrounding first and second wives changed, or if there was strategy, honor, and/or love in her choice to refer to Mariam as her mother. It's a small detail, but emblematic to me of some of the things that can be lost in adaptations. 
Similarly, as the women must wear burkas, they flipped them up on stage, when talking. I confess, burka etiquette is not my wheelhouse, but it seemed a choice designed for the audience. As such, it made it hard to understand, until the characters explicitly said so that Laila later commits a breach of etiquette.
While the content warning list is a lot, I do want to stress, that the violence, while often surprising, is never gory. In fact that implied on stage blood meant you had to intuit the extent of the character's injuries by their post beating movements.

The play attempts to cover a huge amount of time, the characters shift in age and the cast did a wonderful job of demonstrating the shifting ages and maturity. Having now read the summary of the book, it appears the play collapses time a bit, using some flashbacks to narrow the focus. Also, theater age is a fleeting thing, but it was hard to tell that Rasheed was supposed to be older than Mariam. Particular kudos to Mirian Katrib as Laila who is pregnant about half the play. Also, Justin Xavier Poydras played Zalmai the night I saw it.

I think the play will be slightly more successful for book fans, but certainly if you enjoy a quick run through about two woman becoming close in very difficult circumstances, and the choices and sacrifices they make for survival, this play does that.