Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Stunning “A Thousand Splendid Suns”!

Rinabeth Apostol and Denmo Ibrahim in A Thousand Splendid Suns (Nate Watters)
A Thousand Splendid Suns
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Through November 10, 2018

TW: There is a peculiar difficulty for people (mainly female) who might want to see A Thousand Splendid Suns, the masterfully mounted co-production with San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre, which opened Wednesday at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Many hearts are torn and weeping from current politics, and this piece is likely to exacerbate that pain.

This is one of the most stunning pieces of theatricality to grace our stages – and for that reason, it would really be a shame if you miss it. It is a beautifully told tale with gorgeous technical aspects, top-of-their-game acting, and a sensitive adaptation by Ursula Rani Sarma of Khaled Hosseini’s book. The production is absolutely one of the highest level theatrical experiences one can have.

The story, however, is almost unrelentingly bleak. It accurately reflects women’s experiences in most of the world, even though it focuses on two women in Afghanistan around the time the Taliban take-over. Every horrible event in a woman’s life that you can imagine happens in this play. And then some.
The opening scene belies all to come as young Laila (Rinabeth Apostol) helps her mother and father pack (ex-local actor John Farrage has a lovely moment as her father) to leave their home in Afghanistan for Pakistan. They are being driven out by insurgents and bombings and have finally decided to escape.

Then, a bomb falls directly on their home and Laila’s parents are killed. She wakes in the home of a neighbor, Rasheed (Haysam Kadri) who has rescued her, but we learn that he had his eye on her for a long time to become his second wife. His first wife, Mariam (Denmo Ibrahim) is furious but helpless to stop him.

Laila had hoped to get to Pakistan to reunite with a close teenage friend, Tariq (Antoine Yared), but when Rasheed brings home a man to tell her Tariq is dead, she seems to have no choice but to marry Rasheed. Some folks may not consider sex under these circumstances “rape,” but it’s hard to accept, and even harder when Rasheed immediately shows his true colors as a raging abuser.

When Laila protects Mariam from his rage, Mariam begins to bond with Laila, and their prison life (women cannot leave the house without a man, and other strictures levied by the Taliban) becomes just a bit easier to bear.

The hardships continue, thick and fast, throughout this long play. Laila has a baby girl, a little early perhaps, we learn, and they attempt a disastrous escape. Horrors occur when they are returned “home” and things continue to get even worse.

Director Carey Perloff (artistic director at A.C.T.) imbues the piece with poetry from the first moments. Actors drag others onto the stage on carpets, including musician David Coulter, who plays a saw and small percussives and creates a magical soundscape! The set (by Ken McDonald) is wide open, but the back of the stage has a carving that looks metal with designs stamped out for streaming light, and a whorl of metal wire in a huge circle that becomes the sun when lit by designer Robert Wierzel’s lights. Additionally, there is a metal sculpture of wires along the back wall that can look like mountains or barbed wire, again depending on lighting.

The lead women feel emotionally so present that the audience is bound to their journey throughout. Their acting is part of what makes it so hard on viewers because you believe them, even as you see the theatrical devices everywhere.

The trigger warning is made to help you see the production, not to drive you away. If you can arm yourself with tissues and a will to live through this journey, you can see how important a story it is to see on stage. If you pay attention to news, you know that these lives are not unique. Indeed, women in most of the world are faced with similar struggles, maybe sometimes not as overt, but still we are a long way from “liberation, baby.”

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