There is a moment, deep into the second act of A Thousand Splendid Suns, that illustrates the power of theatre. An often elusive communal response to what we are witnessing, it reflects the immediacy of the live performance. It is indeed a beautiful thing. You’ll wish it doesn’t take so long to get there in this Arts Club Theatre Company season opener.
Ursula Rani Sarma’s stage adaptation of A Thousand Splendid Suns is a faithful adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel as it tells the story of Laila and Mariam, two women trapped inside an abusive marriage to the same man while navigating the misogyny of the rising Taliban in Afghanistan.
Mariam is the older of the two, forced to marry Rasheed after her mother commits suicide. A pregnant Laila finds herself at Rasheed’s doorstep and eventually his second wife, following the death of her parents from a bombing raid in Kabul.
Resentful of Laila’s intrusion into her life, Mariam at first wants nothing to do with the young interloper and her daughter. But as the two older women navigate their lives at the hands of a violent husband and religious regime, a bond begins to develop between them.
More expository in its first act, there is an almost detached and surreal calmness to A Thousand Splendid Suns that are at odds with what is taking place in the lives of these characters and the changing world around them. While it may set the stage for the more dramatic act two, it is somehow distancing,
It is in the play’s second half where Sarma amps the drama. And while some of it wades into the melodramatic, there is a stronger emotional connection to and between these women.
While the focus of A Thousand Splendid Suns is squarely on the journey of the two women, the production benefits from the luxuries of its large cast of eleven. No doubt only made possible because of its partnership with the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, this large assembly of Middle Eastern and South Asian actors is a revelation.
As Mariam, Deena Aziz takes the biggest emotional journey in A Thousand Splendid Suns with an affecting performance as she gradually thaws to Laila’s appearance in her life, making the ultimate sacrifice she is willing to make that much more believable.
Anita Majumdar gives an equally authentic performance as Laila, bringing little doubt as to the optimism and hope of her character.
Anousha Alamian has perhaps the most difficult role as husband Rasheed, who breathes life into what could easily have been caricature, and as Laila’s daughter Aziza, Ziyana Vasays makes her professional and Arts Club debut with a balance of naivety and a growing understanding of what it means to be a woman in a repressive society.
There is also nice work from the rest of the ensemble, especially Munish Sharma who effectively moves between multiple characters with clarity, and Abraham Asto as Laila’s childhood sweetheart.
The production is also gorgeous. Ken MacDonald’s imposing backdrop serves to heighten the impact of some of the more dramatic scenes, all effectively lit by lighting designer Robert Wierzel. David Coulter’s original music provides a haunting score.
A Thousand Splendid Suns may take its time, but the pay-off is worth it. More than simply providing a look into the lives of women inside a gruesome world of which we have had little access beyond our television news, there is a universality that provides its biggest resonance. It reminds us of the resilience of the human spirit, and that with darkness can also come light.
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Ursula Rani Sarma. Based on the book by Khaled Hosseini. Directed by Haysam Kadri. An Arts Club Theatre Company production in partnership with the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. On stage at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage (2750 Granville St, Vancouver) until October 13. Visit artsclub.com for tickets and information.