Review: “A Thousand Splendid Suns” at American Conservatory Theatre

A Thousand Splendid Suns, currently being presented at the American Conservatory Theatre, is a major theatrical event no matter how you slice it. Khaled Hosseini’s 2007 novel was a literary sensation, the follow-up novel to the 2003 cultural event that was The Kite Runner and a New York Times #1 bestseller for fifteen weeks after publication. It is therefore automatically of note that the first major adaptation is being presented not on Broadway, but in San Francisco, where it is running until the end of February. Not having read the novel, I cannot speak to its quality, nor can I speak to how well playwright Ursula Rani Sarma has adapted the material for the stage, but I can say with some assurance that A Thousand Splendid Suns simply doesn’t work as a piece of stagecraft, being both overly-melodramatic and unfortunately shallow, despite good intentions.

A Thousand Splendid Suns tells the story of Laila, a young woman from Kabul who is forced to become the second wife of Haysam, a neighbor, after her family is killed by a rocket strike during the latter part of the Soviet’s invasion of Afghanistan, focusing on her relationship with her husband, Haysam’s first wife Mariam, and her eventual children, all told against the turbulent political climate of Afghanistan that included the Taliban’s takeover in 1996. This is an interesting setup for an intelligent personal drama with a political spin, but unfortunately A Thousand Splendid Suns instead operates in the world of melodrama, featuring a heavily plotted story that contains a twist every thirty seconds or so and a seemingly endless descent into deeper and deeper darkness. One can appreciate the fact that stories like Laila’s did exist, and even that they often were as overwhelmed by evil, but A Thousand Splendid Suns seems far too interested in the darkness of her life in and of itself, rather than to serve some larger end, as if the piece uses its own horrifying events as a case against strong dramaturgy. In that way, it is rather like a third-rate Oscar-bait film, full of moments that are supposed to garner an emotional response from its audience without once earning its desired reaction from strong plot structure or intelligent character building.

This is best demonstrated in the portrayal of the central characters, who create a checkerboard of black-and-white morality, in which every character will either do the right thing every time she is given the option or the single most evil thing imaginable. Case-in-point: Haysam, Laila’s abusive husband, almost reaches comic-book level of villainy, spouting several evil catchphrases every time he is onstage and representing every element of misogynist culture known to man. Countering this is Mariam, Haysam’s first wife, who acts like a biblical saint in how unerringly true she remains in her quest to become the most morally unassailable character ever written. I would never discredit the evil of abusers, nor the heroism and the struggle of their victims, but when the audience bursts into spontaneous applause at the bodily harm of the villain of the piece, you’ve ultimately failed in your job as an author to create an evening of theatre more complicated than a medieval morality play.

It is these elements, as well as the absurd amount of plot within the 160 minute work, that ultimately reveal why novels are not frequently adapted for the stage: novels are by definition novelistic in scope, able to tell sweeping stories and take their time doing so. The stage, on the other hand, specializes in the myopic, in which humans and relationships become all-important and the plot can go by the wayside if necessary. I highly doubt that anyone would be interested in The Glass Menagerie, in which a gentleman comes over for dinner and then leaves (end of play), as a novel, but it remains unfathomably brilliant onstage because of the unique human qualities that it is able to represent. When so much plot has to be given in such little time, depth has to be sacrificed, and one has to wonder why on earth anybody bothered to place this work onstage in the first place. I would have gladly watched any of the abortive 10-minute scenes expanded to play length if it meant that an element of human complexity or authorial beauty could be added.

There are also questions as to what end the sequences of abuse in Splendid Suns were staged, specially if they serve a larger point beyond grotesque “entertainment”. It’s certainly important to show the awfulness of physical abuse, but the sheer amount of it shown in explicit detail within A Thousand Splendid Suns makes me question if the show truly had the best intentions or if it just used such a difficult topic as action fodder for its audience, which at the very least places the sequences in some sort of morally grey area.

It doesn’t help that A Thousand Splendid Suns has been staged with cinematic beauty but ultimately ghoulish levels of fever-pitch intensity. American Conservatory Theatre artistic director Carey Perloff has directed her large cast of 13 actors to produce performances that are so overcooked that they could reach the back of AT&T Park with no color lost. I counted six different monologues that involved the speaker sobbing as hard as possible, and the whole evening was staged way too aggressively, whereas a lighter touch might have brought some levity to the ultimately sluggish production.

On the positive side, Ken MacDonald’s sets are evocatively beautiful as paired with Robert Wierzel’s stunning lighting design, and stories about the Middle East are always important to hear, even when completely defined by war and brutality as they are here.

I can’t say if Hosseini’s novel is any good, but I might recommend reading it before seeing this production. If you’re looking for a great story about the middle east, I’d suggest the films of Asghar Farhadi, particularly 2011’s A Separation, or Heather Raffo’s gorgeous play 9 Parts of Desire. As for A Thousand Splendid Suns, there are plenty of melodramas you can watch at home for a lot less money.

A Thousand Splendid Suns plays at the Geary Theatre in San Francisco through February 26. Tickets and information available here.

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