By Ursula Rani Sarma. Based on the book by Khaled Hosseini. Directed by Haysam Kadri. An Arts Club Theatre Company and Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre coproduction. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Wednesday, September 18. Continues until October 13
In today’s news, analysts continue to parse the fallout from last weekend’s attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq petroleum-processing facility, with defence specialists postulating a rise in low-tech, drone-based warfare. Israel is in political gridlock, as scandal-plagued prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line tactics seem to have provoked a liberal backlash. And in Afghanistan, the statistics for August indicate that an average of 74 people were killed every day, victims of that country’s long-running armed conflict.
On the surface, it would seem a propitious time for the Arts Club to launch its theatrical take on Afghan-American novelist Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, coproduced for the Canadian market by the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. It’s hard to see what debuted on the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage this Wednesday, however, as anything less than a missed opportunity.
If you’re looking for genuine insight into an often demonized culture, you won’t find it here. If you’re looking for a theatrical experience that shares some of the poignant power of Hosseini’s book, you might be somewhat more satisfied, but not very. And if you’re looking for art to put an engagingly human face on the horrors of war, you’ll find stereotypes—and a happy ending.
If only life reached such neat conclusions! A Thousand Splendid Suns begins with brutality, when teenage Laila’s parents are obliterated by a bomb. In flashback, we see the spark of her romance with kindly, crippled Tariq, before she agrees to marry her rescuer, Rasheed.
What he doesn’t know, but eventually suspects, is that she’s pregnant with Tariq’s child. Horror and unkindness ensue, including a suicide, a haunting, a murder, an execution, and the aforementioned happy ending, in which Tariq returns from the dead and all is well, except for the people who have died.
The questioning mind will find holes in this plot, and in other aspects of this production. Why, in a script with a supposedly feminist slant, do the central characters use the absence of a man as the basis for their inaction and the presence of one as the source of their salvation? Why, in a play about a country first undermined and then invaded by the United States, is American impact reduced to a happy Hollywood fantasy? (The film Titanic is referenced, but so sunnily that the looming irony fails to land.) How do a beaten woman and a broken man overcome 20 years of physical and psychological trauma to rekindle teen love with a glance?
The only answer is that A Thousand Splendid Suns is not reportage but a feel-good story—and making a feel-good story out of tragedy is perhaps not morally advisable. The play treats the Afghan War as an Arabian Nights fable, and does little to illuminate how the North American Taliban—and you know who they are—might bring similar misogynistic woes here.
There are some pleasures in this production. David Coulter’s score, and in particular the eerie tones of his musical saw, add texture where there would otherwise be little nuance.
Ken MacDonald’s simple set effectively combines beauty and threat, aided by Robert Wierzel’s lighting design, which can be atmospheric to the point of poetry.
Deena Aziz and Anita Majumdar—as Rasheed’s abused first wife, Mariam, and teen orphan Laila, respectively—give credible performances; Majumdar is more consistently on-point, but at one point Aziz morphs from 40 to 14 in a way that suggests she’s got more technique than she has occasion to use. Anousha Alamian, as their husband Rasheed, is less successful, but has less to work with: after an initial flash of humanity he quickly becomes a monster, with very little exposition to explain the transformation. Men in general do not fare well here; there is much shouting and many laughably fake beards.
Most of the problems stem from playwright Ursula Rani Sarma, whose treatment of Hosseini’s book turns the author's ability to engage into something far more manipulative—a quality exaggerated by this production's torpid pacing.
Tighten up the action and it wouldn’t be so easy to feel the strings being pulled. Granted, the production team introduces some short but effective movement sequences; this play is at its best when it veers towards dance.
One last point: on opening night the houselights came up less than 30 seconds after the last character left the stage, and the whole cast came bouncing on to bask in the obligatory standing O. If the Arts Club would like us to believe that we’ve witnessed something deeply moving, it should at least give us a minute to sit with our thoughts.