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A Thousand Splendid Suns
Do you know who is in charge out there? — Rasheed to his wife.
Hend Ayoub (Mariam) and Mirian Katrib (Laila) - Photo credit: Margot Schulman
A Thousand Splendid Suns, adapted by Ursula Rani Sarma for the stage from Khaled Hosseini's novel, is now playing at Arena Stage. Its beginning has visual promise. Against a backdrop that has what looks like stencil cut outs of leaves on a branch, women pull carpets laden with foreign-looking vessels for making tea (or something) and a little boy flying a kite runs across the stage -- the latter a reference to Hosseini's previous (and superior) novel The Kite Runner. Original music by David Coulter adds to the ambiance. The setting is Afghanistan, beginning in 1992, an austere and physically beautiful place that is both feudal and cruel.

Two women -- Mariam (Hend Ayoub) and Laila (Mirian Katrib) are married to the same man, Rasheed, (Haysam Kadri, in a very strong performance) a brutal misogynist, like most men in Afghanistan at the time (and probably to this day). Backward-thinking does not begin to explain this egregious savage. In fact there is only one man in this story who has any redeeming qualities, that's Tariq (Antoine Yared), the boy-next-door and Laila's only true love. (Arena Stage is to be commended for its multi-culti casting.)

"What a man does in his home is his business," says Rasheed who rapes his wife, slaps her around with a strap and forbids her to leave. When Mariam and Laila try to leave Kabul for Peshawar, the money they had for train tickets is taken away from them, unlawfully. Actually, lawlessness and corruption define life in Afghanistan.

What follows is a succession of horrific events: Laila and Mariam try to leave Kabul, where their neighborhood has been shelled. Tariq, we are told, died in the conflagration -- except he does pop up later in one of the play's needs for the suspension of disbelief. The other being, at the end of the second act, Mariam's decision not to leave for Pakistan with Laila, Tarique and the children she loves.

That's not all: like nearly every other man in Afghanistan, Rasheed will not let either of his wives or his daughter be educated. Out of fear they hide their books. "Women are always wrong," one of the men declares.

Laila suffers a miscarriage and, much later, gives birth by Caesarian Section in a filthy and ill-equipped hospital lacking in such basics as anesthesia and antibiotics. Next up: the arrival of the Taliban, more beating of women, a mother who commits suicide, and people stealing because they are hungry. The purpose of references to the movie Titanic are, I suppose, meant to provide comic relief. But that too fails because it isn't funny.

For all its grand guignol A Thousand Splendid Suns is emotionally unaffecting, possibly because of its tedious litany of wrongs. The take-aways though are clear: why has the United States spent nearly two futile decades supplying military and financial aid to such a God-forsaken country and why would anyone think that turning this novel into a theater piece was a good idea?

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A Thousand Splendid Suns by Ursula Rani Sarma
Based on the book by Khaled Hosseini
Directed by Carey Perloff
Choreographed by Stephen Buescher
Cast: Hend Ayoub (Mariam); Sarah Corey (Ensemble); Lanna Joffrey (Fariba/Nana); Haysam Kadri (Rasheed/Fight Captain); Joseph Kamal (Babi/Zamam/Interrogator); Jason Kapoor (Wakil); Mirian Katrib (Laila); Ravi Mampara (Zalmai); Justin Xavier Poydras (Zalmai); Yousof Sultani (Ensemble); Nikita Tewani (Aziza); Antoine Yared (Tariq/Driver).
Costume Design by Linda Cho
Set Design by Ken MacDonald
Lighting Design by Robert Wierzel
Sound Design by Jake Rodriguez
Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. Arena Stage, Performances January 17 to March 1, 2020. Reviewed by Susan Davidson at January 23, 2020 performance.

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