Cherchez la femme in Afghanistan

Both on stage and in the story, the women are directed

Nadine Malouf as Laila in A Thousand Splendid Suns at the Old Globe
  • Nadine Malouf as Laila in A Thousand Splendid Suns at the Old Globe
  • Jim Cox

A Thousand Splendid Suns

When they first meet, Mariam can’t stand young Laila. With good reason: in her early 30s, Mariam’s the dutiful wife of Rasheed, an abusive control freak. To him, she’s lower than a house cat. Now he wants young Laila, mid-teens, to be his second wife, a fairly common practice in Kabul, Afghanistan. He’ll do anything for Laila: fine clothes, gifts, her favorite flowers. The words alone shock Mariam; Rasheed’s never talked like this in their almost two decades of marriage. Stolid Mariam calls Laila a “whore.”

“If [Mariam] were a car,” says Rasheed, “she’d be a Volga” (the rage in Russia, but known elsewhere for being sturdy, dependable, and that’s all). Laila would be “a brand new, first-class shiny Benz… the queen of the house.” But, he adds, Benz’s demand special treatment, and special rules: she can’t leave the house without him; she must always wear a burka (“for your own protection, naturally”). And when he’s out, Mariam must watch her every move. To Mariam, Rasheed’s demands rain “down on them like the rockets on Kabul.”

Mariam’s battered mother, Nana, sums up the treatment of women in Afghanistan: “like a compass needle that always points north, a man’s accusing finger will always find a woman.”

Khaled Hosseini’s novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, follows the evolving relationship of Mariam and Laila for over 30 years. It tells the story of Afghanistan in detail, from the Mujahideen battling the Soviets, to the Afghani warlords slaughtering each other (the “Afghan Civil War”), to the Taliban takeover around 1996, to the arrival of U.S. troops and bombers after 9/11. Hosseini shows how the sweep of history affects the lives of the two women to great effect.

One of the book’s — and Ursula Rani Sarma’s new play at the Old Globe’s — most arresting scenes: the Taliban conquers Kabul; red Toyota trucks seek out “clean-shaven faces to bloody.” They institute new laws. Among them: pray five times a day or be beaten; no singing, dancing, card-playing, books, movies, or be beaten. “If you keep parakeets, you will be beaten. Your birds will be killed.”

Women have around two dozen bonus restrictions: no jewelry, cosmetics, laughter, education, or work. Caught alone on the street, you will be beaten; if found guilty of adultery, stoned to death. Rasheed adores the new regime. The Taliban, he says, “will clean up this place” and bring peace and order. In fact, he will “shower them with rose petals.” Small surprise: he’s treated his wives this way all along.

Like the book, which takes at least 100 pages to warm up, the play meanders for many scenes. It improves when Mariam and Laila bond in spite of differences to resist stifling oppression. At the same time, Rasheed unleashes evil like a Taliban of one. The result, Mariam and Laila display a near-epic courage — but modestly, with no claim to fame. They do what they must.

The script centers on the two women and shoves historical events to the background. This is a shame, but necessary, because the playwright must fit a 400-page book into two and a half hours (and more on opening night) on a stage. Sarma sticks to the high points of the story, but stays on the surface, with no room for depth or layering.

The adaptation works for the most part. The surprise is the production, a joint effort from the American Conservatory Theatre and the Theatre Calgary. The actors have just two vocal levels: soft-spoken or full-bore. And they make stock, predictable choices, almost as if they too are hemmed in.

The techno-flair design work becomes a show in itself. Humble props hold the foreground: tables, beds, and mobile translucent portals set the local scene. But behind is a scene-stealing work of art. Mountains on the rear wall loom over snippets of clouds. A drop, black with mysterious, golden, never-explained symbols, lowers on occasion — to reflect on stage emotions? But where’s the claustrophobia? Most of the novel takes place indoors. At the Globe, it’s a panorama. Lit by Robert Wierzel’s bombarding lights, the busy, dazzling “surround” dominates. The scenic design is gorgeous. And that’s a problem; it gives strife-torn Afghanistan a Vegas glitz.

A highlight: David Coulter’s original music evokes authentic atmosphere and tension. That he makes all the sounds himself — playing a saw, guitar, various drums, and “found” instruments — evokes admiration. But the music needs a better sound mix, since it tends to drown out the actors.

When the play warms up, the pacing slows down. Actors call the spaces between words, and between exchanges of dialogue, “air.” Though some is necessary, the less — especially in act two, when things need to move — the better. The Old Globe’s opening night second act was downright airy. The pacing became solemn, pauses lengthened. The goal was apparently to build emotion for a scene, but the pauses ended up lagging forward movement even more. In sum: director Carey Perloff overstated the silence.

In the book, Mariam’s sufferings rival Job’s. Then she finds peace and becomes “a person of consequence at last” — maybe even a saint. But in the final scenes, Nadine Malouf (Laila) and especially Denmo Ibrahim (Mariam) slow their speeches down, often in monotones, and put “air” in between them. The effect doesn’t serve the cause. They are obviously acting as directed, not as unleashed hearts.

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