A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS opens bathed in a warm and rosy light, with the mountains in relief in the distance. Not unlike the desert in which this play is set, this beauty comes tinged with danger and sorrow as the details show the materials of the sun and mountains are sharp edged and jagged pieces of metal. The play itself is much like this as well; a gorgeous and emotional story of the beauty and power of women’s friendship and how it can help them endure even the most horrible of circumstances.
It opens with teenage Laila (Nadine Malouf) and her parents packing to move to a safer area as their city finds itself under consistent missile attack. As she sorts through books to pack, her parents return to the house for more items so they can depart. Next thing Laila knows she is waking up in the home of a man, Rasheed (Haysam Kadri) and his wife Mariam (Denmo Ibrahim) and to the news that while she was injured in an attack, her parents were killed.
Rasheed may have pulled her out of the rubble to save her life, but he takes it from her as well when he manipulates her into a marriage that quickly becomes suffocating. Mariam, an unwanted illegitimate child and now finding herself an unwanted first wife, has no choice as her husband takes on a new wife. Laila finds herself rebuffed as she tries to find common ground and a bond with Mariam, but as both their husband and country become increasingly hostile the two women soon find themselves as unlikely allies to surviving these ever changing circumstances.
Malouf is impressive as Laila, a character that covers a lot of emotional ground starting as a fresh and educated fifteen year old to becoming a mother of two in an abusive marriage. Ibrahim as Mariam is equally striking as the emotionally impoverished first wife who finds family in this friendship with Laila. Both women also bring a nuanced physicality to their roles as the play progresses and the weight of their situation seems to manifest physically upon them.
Kadri as Rasheed is compelling as his character is a fully formed and understandable one, even though most of those many dimensions are self-serving and cruel. Compared to the rest of the characters in the show he has no overly compelling reason for his horrid behavior other than being a powerless and pathetic person who believes his intolerance should be rewarded as virtue.
Haunting music played on a saw (as well as other instruments), composed and played by David Coulter set the scene with an exotic and haunting melody. Costumes by Linda Cho highlight the differences of the characters, and are expressive visual reminder of the changes in society and politics over the decades that pass in the show.
Ken Macdonald’s set is spare but imaginative as it plays with space and materials and is supported by Robert Wierzel’s rich lighting. Together it paints a world that is both of this world and yet utterly foreign, warmly inviting but also inhospitable to those characters that stay.
At the end of the play my friend, who also happens to be female, turned to me and said,” Never have I been so grateful for the cosmic accident of the place I was born and how that impacted the course of my life.” That is the beauty of theatre and this show; it engenders empathy for others by allowing the audience a glimpse into a world where we normally only get sound bites.
It brings to life these women who are doing the best with what little they were given based on their gender and when and where they were born. It’s easy to forget with the endless news reports and broad strokes coverage of the Middle East that there are individuals who are trying to survive their lives in a terrible situation.
The play is also timely in its portrayal of how women are often the main support for each other, and use their shared strength to find courage, moments of joy, navigate difficulties, and how those bonds can help you survive even the most egregious abuses of power.
The title of the play is taken from a line of poetry by Saeb-e-Tabrizi, a seventeenth century Persian poet. It was written to describe and celebrate the beauty of Afghanistan and its cultural accomplishments. This play shows the dimming of those suns as the country and culture are overtaken by the demanding and the brutal.
Yet, it is in Mariam and Laila and this story of friendship, family, hope, and love that you find two splendid suns shining brightly.
A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS is playing through June 17th at the Old Globe. For tickets and show time information go to www.theoldglobe.org