Powerful play highlights female strength
Prior to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, women comprised half of government workers, 70% of schoolteachers and 40% percent of doctors in its capital city, Kabul, according to the U.S. Department of State.
A Thousand Splendid Suns, which runs through March 1 at Arena Stage, tells the story of Laila (Mirian Katrib), who grew up in Kabul and likely would have been one of those successful women, if not for the Taliban’s harsh treatment of women during its rise to power in the 1990s, when the play is set.
This engrossing play is making its East Coast debut with Arena’s production, directed by Carey Perloff. It was adapted by Ursula Rani Sarma from the 2007 New York Times bestseller of the same name by Khaled Hosseini.
Hosseini’s Afghan family sought political asylum in the United States when he was a teenager, and he was inspired to write the book by the women he met when he visited Afghanistan 30 years later.
The aftereffects of war
Laila grew up in a privileged household that valued education, culture and poetry. But she was never able to realize this promising future, especially after the death of her family. Her brothers were killed fighting the Soviet invasion of the 1980s, and her parents died in a bombing at the beginning of the play.
When Laila discovers that her close friend and last hope for a better life, Tariq, died on his journey to reach the safety of Pakistan, she realizes she only has one option. Injured from the bombing and only 15 years old, Laila agrees to become the second wife of neighbor Rasheed (Haysam Kadri).
Rasheed’s other wife, Mariam (Hend Ayoub), who is almost 20 years Laila’s senior, is less than pleased, creating a hostile home environment that mirrors the chaos in Kabul during that time period.
Laila’s status in the household becomes threatened when she gives birth to a daughter, whom Rasheed insinuates is not his. The baby, however, brings the two women together, when Laila intervenes to protect Mariam from Rasheed.
Not safe in society or at home
Leila and Mariam’s torment is sometimes political, as in one disturbing scene where the women’s hospital is not granted anesthesia.
But more often it’s personal. Laila judges the despotic rule of the Taliban as potentially less dangerous than her home life, so she, Mariam and the baby make a short-lived escape.
When the women are returned, Rasheed’s punishment is brutal. He would be a classic abuser no matter the political regime, but he excuses his violence with the Taliban’s interpretations of female subordination in the Qur’an.
Though their world is restricted and uncertain, together Laila and Mariam are confidants who rescue and advocate for each other, create family, laugh and share the work and joy of raising Laila’s children.
Yet Mariam and Laila are not able to diffuse the pressure in their world. When Rasheed loses his job due to the political upheaval, the family begins to starve. They decide to send Laila’s daughter, Aziza (Nikita Tewani), to an underground school. There, she suffers in solitude.
In one scene, Mariam’s mother (Lanna Joffrey) tells her that the only skill her daughter needs in life is endurance. She is only partially right. Though their world is restricted and uncertain, together Laila and Mariam rescue and advocate for each other, create family, laugh, and share the work and joy of raising Laila’s children.
Endurance has taken them a long way, but it is love that allows for the play’s final wrenching sacrifice.
The strength of women
The production’s emotionally resonant performances focus less on an unraveling society and more on the power of female alliance.
In ambitious staging throughout the play, Laila and Mariam separately switch into younger versions of their characters, without leaving the stage or changing costume.
Ayoub’s Mariam, who seems to embody the stolid and worn long-married wife, is fantastic in these flashbacks, suddenly inhabiting an eager and exuberant child who adores her neglectful father.
Changing lights help amplify the tone of each scene. Designed by Kevin Macdonald, the colorful set uses stencil-like images to show Kabul’s windswept, mountainous landscape.
The title of the play (and book) comes from a line of poetry that Laila reads to her father about the beauty of Kabul. Throughout the play, however, the city is under attack. And the future of the country lies in the strength of women like Laila to fight the Taliban’s repressive regime.
Note: With a range of adult themes including violence, abuse, self-harm and illness, this play is not for children. The play runs through March 1 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th Street SW, Washington, D.C.
Performance time is 2 ½ hours, including a 15-minute intermission. Several performances include post-show discussions to help the audience process the weighty material.
The concierge desk will connect attendees to Lyft or taxicabs, and the Center has its own onsite parking garage. For tickets, visit tickets.arenastage.org/events.