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‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ a searing portrait of Afghan women

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From left, Haysam Kadri, Nadine Malouf and Kate Rigg are excellent in American Conservatory Theater’s premiere of “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” based on the best-selling book. (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

Cruelty, oppression, despair, grief, rage and yes, redemption, are only some of the emotions laid bare on the spare Geary stage in Ursula Rani Sarma’s adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s novel “A Thousand Splendid Suns.”

The American Conservatory Theater world premiere of the play opens with actors trudging across the stage, dragging various burdens, accompanied by plaintive tones of a saw — one of many unusual instruments that comprise David Coulter’s haunting and evocative underscore.

The weariness of their transit foreshadows the oppressive mood of the play where loss piles on loss and characters are crushed under a repressive culture and restrictive politics.

The Soviets have departed Afghanistan and the Taliban seizes Kabul. Fifteen-year-old Laila (Nadine Malouf) seems rescued from death by Rasheed (Haysam Kadri), who brings her to his home to live under the wary eye of his wife Mariam (Kate Rigg).

With her past life gone and her present prospects nonexistent, Laila reluctantly accepts Rasheed’s proposal of polygamous marriage, though Mariam is clearly unhappy with the arrangement.

As the three keep house amid wartime privation and Rasheed’s increasingly abusive nature, the relationship forged by these two women in the face of relentless and insurmountable obstacles becomes the core of the play.

It is the only real sustenance for their characters – not to mention relief for the audience – against the harsh reality of life as a woman under a fundamentalist religious dictatorship.

Condensing a novel to film or stage presentation is never easy, and Sarma and director Carey Perloff do an admirable job of moving through the extensive exposition of the first half to move the women center stage. Transitions are beautifully fluid, with only the occasional dissonance of needing to sort the present events from multiple flashbacks and track actors through multiple roles.

Malouf and Rigg maintain an exquisite dignity, a radiant humanity, despite the injustice and violence rained down upon them. Their ability to find love and hold on to honor in such despairing circumstances is a tribute to the breathtaking honesty of the actors.

As Rasheed, Kadri delivers an effective traditionalist man-child narcissist oppressor, and Denmo Ibrahim is most notable as Mariam’s mother reciting resigned pragmatism from the afterlife.

While the play ends with a note of hope, it is a difficult journey. Media reporting can keep Middle East realities at a safe distance. The power of “A Thousand Splendid Suns” is that it brings that reality uncomfortably close and makes you feel the pain of the other.

REVIEW
A Thousand Splendid Suns
Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 26
Tickets: $25 to $150
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org

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