It has taken nine years for another production of epic heft to find a spot on the theater calendar, so bravo to Arena Stage for recognizing the vacuum. “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” based on a novel by Khaled Hosseini, author of 2003’s “The Kite Runner,” is a clear-eyed illumination of that most accessible of ties, a mother’s bond with her endangered child. For anyone seeking an affecting tour of love among the ruins, booking passage here will be rewarded.
The harrowing tale follows Laila (Mirian Katrib), child bride and second wife to vicious, violent Rasheed (Haysam Kadri) in the waning days of the Soviet occupation in the 1990s and the reign of Taliban terror that ensued. Playwright Ursula Rami Sarma, adapting the Afghan-born novelist’s 2007 book, unfolds Laila’s life in spare, stark scenes that put you in mind of the Old Testament. Director Carey Perloff, who first staged “A Thousand Splendid Suns” on the West Coast in 2017, collaborates grandly with set designer Ken MacDonald to place Laila and daughter Aziza (Nikita Tewani) in a landscape of dire threat. Against a cutout backdrop that splits like a jagged puzzle, a massive sun of coiled wires floats across the stage.
That splendid sun keeps watch like a prison guard over the trapped women of Afghanistan, forced by the Taliban to vanish into their burqas and the virtual anonymity of second-class citizenship. In Rasheed’s home, his first wife, Mariam (the extraordinary Hend Ayoub), initially sees pregnant Laila as an enemy. One of the balms of “A Thousand Splendid Suns” reveals itself in the bond that eventually grows between Mariam and Laila, a victimized sisterhood that under Perloff’s steady guidance is forged believably in the throes of maternal longing.
At times, the play lingers too leisurely in the relentlessly suffocating void of Mariam and Laila’s existence, but that may be in service of Hosseini and Sarma’s dramatic proof that the profound survival instinct children trigger can sustain hope in the bleakest conditions.
The treatment of Aziza and the adult women is so brutal that you may, as I did, have to suppress the urge to leap out of your seat and strangle Kadri’s Rasheed. Which is, of course, a backhanded compliment to Kadri himself; there’s the slimmest indication of a more humane side to Rasheed, in his coddling of his young son Zalmai, played by Ravi Mampara at the performance I attended. Still, this is one of those times when you cannot wait for justice to catch up with a character.
Katrib, maintaining a stoic forbearance, gracefully manages the illusion of agelessness, allowing her to persuasively portray the stages of Laila’s life from adolescence to early middle age, and Antoine Yared contributes a compelling turn as Tariq, Laila’s beleaguered lover. As for Ayoub’s Mariam: it’s a movingly permeable performance, the phases of her exhaustion and defensiveness, suffering and courage all etched in her features. In her story, embroidered mournfully by composer David Coulter’s musical underscoring, you imagine the unrecorded trials of untold numbers of ordinary Afghan women.
If you read in-depth dispatches or TV news reports from the region, Kabul and Kandahar and Herat are not entirely unknown to you. Certainly, too, you’re aware that the persecutions and atrocities of Taliban rule caused unspeakable torment for an entire gender. It sometimes requires a novelist or a playwright to express the pain locked behind shuttered windows and padlocked doors.
Rather than a polemic, this play is an accounting of the toll, and the side it takes is in favor of freedom. It employs that splendid sun to peer through the slats of those windows and doors to illuminate some plain, heartbreaking truth.
A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Ursula Rani Sarma, based on Khaled Hosseini’s novel. Directed by Carey Perloff. Original music, David Coulter; choreography, Stephen Buescher; sets, Ken MacDonald; costumes, Linda Cho; lighting, Robert Wierzel; sound, Jake Rodriguez. With Ravi Mampara, Justin Xavier Poydras, Nikita Tewani. About 2½ hours. $41-$95. Through March 1 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Ave. SW. 202-488-3300. arenastage.org.