Sometimes a play builds up so much momentum, it takes on a life of its own. Calgary actor and director Haysam Kadri had no idea, when he agreed to take a role in A Thousand Splendid Suns, that it would go on to consume years of his life. He thought the part in Ursula Rani Sarma’s adaptation of Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling book would be a quick and compelling job. He’d star in the world premiere at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, before the coproduction moved on to Theatre Calgary. And then the Stratford Festival alumnus could go back to his role as artistic producer at the Shakespeare Company, not to mention being a parent to three children.
But with its deeply human look at Afghanistan’s painful history, A Thousand Splendid Suns grew into a force he never expected. The premiere at ACT in 2017 became one of the best-selling shows in that company’s history. It went on to a U.S. tour, with Kadri being asked to helm the Canadian version—one that retains the haunting original score by David Coulter and poetically artful sets by former Vancouverite Ken MacDonald. Suns has been to the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario, and now heads to the Arts Club’s Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage before hitting Winnipeg’s Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.
“It’s been quite the journey,” Kadri says, speaking to the Straight on a day off from show previews. “It’s so topical and this play resonates every time we do it.…That’s the sad thing. But also we’re showing the rich history of this country and we’re representing the people of Afghanistan in a different light.
“It’s easy to divorce ourselves from that part of the world when we watch the news,” he continues, adding that Afghanistan becomes its own richly drawn character in the play. “But these are real people and they have a trajectory that is a human one.”
Here, as in productions staged elsewhere, Arts Club artistic director Ashlie Corcoran committed to hiring from the local and national Middle Eastern and South Asian communities—not an easy feat, Kadri points out. “It’s very difficult to cast 11 actors who are supposed to be from Afghanistan,” he comments. “It is a challenge, because there are a lot of amazing diverse actors busy being diverse elsewhere. ”
Staging the show is no small undertaking either. For starters, the story spans 25 years and traces, sometimes through flashbacks, the complexities of the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, the rise of the mujahedeen, and the Taliban takeover. “You get to see the progression of ideology and the digression of society,” Kadri explains, “how political and religious snafus handcuff people.”
But there is also a huge physical and emotional toll depicted in the work. In the story, after teenage Laila (Anita Majumdar) is orphaned by a bombing in Kabul, she’s taken in by an older male neighbour, Rasheed (Anousha Alamian), and soon becomes his second wife. Rasheed is a cruel man, and she and his initially resentful first wife, Mariam (Deena Aziz), form a deep bond in the face of his abusive oppression.
“We have outlets for help in this part of the world and people don’t there,” Kadri says. “A woman can’t pick up the phone and call 911. It’s one of those plays that allows us to understand how lucky we are to be in the Western Hemisphere.”
When you read Hosseini’s moving book, just as when you read his previous bestseller The Kite Runner, he eases you into the story; you can put it down when things become too intense. But, as Kadri puts it, “When you see this novel being distilled in two hours, it is a gut punch for the audience.”
With an intimate knowledge, from playing Rasheed, of what it’s like to relive the intense plot night after night, the director has come up with some ways to help his actors cope. “This will be the seventh different version of it, so I kind of have a shorthand of the emotional and physical topography you have to navigate,” he says. “I’m exhausted just watching this show, because you’re emotionally involved and you’re watching your friends and colleagues go through this. And I now marvel at how amazing actors are.”
Still, what’s given A Thousand Splendid Suns its staying power is the hope it offers for a region many are too quick to dismiss, Kadri believes. “It’s a love story: these two women get to forge a friendship. And how often do we get to see two women form a bond during a play?” he says. “So although it is a gut punch and you’re watching things that are unbelievable, you also see human spirit and resiliency and energy and light.”
The Arts Club Theatre Company presents A Thousand Splendid Suns at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage until October 13.