When Irish Indian playwright Ursula Rani Sarma was commissioned to adapt the book, she grappled with how to capture its essence without making the script so bleak that the audience would feel alienated from the characters — but also without presenting something that felt like a “sanitized, easy-watching experience,” as she put it during a phone interview from her home in London.
By focusing on the main female characters in a narrative that’s more chronologically fluid and less linear than the novel, her adaptation deftly brings “Splendid Suns” to life in a way that’s empathetic and moving, while not shying away from its very real horrors.
“The one thing I really did want to bring across 100 percent was the depth and complexity of the women as Khaled had written them,” said Rani Sarma. “This is a play about human strength and the endurance of women, and friendship, and how women can survive tremendous suffering to keep the people that they love alive.”
Rani Sarma has written more than a dozen theatrical works, as well as TV and film scripts; her play “The Magic Tree” had its U.S. premiere at Washington’s Keegan Theatre, as part of the 2015 Women’s Voices Theater Festival. She was commissioned to adapt “Splendid Suns” by Carey Perloff, the artistic director of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater from 1992 to 2018. (Hosseini, who lives in the Bay Area, was personally involved with the adaptation.)
After premiering at A.C.T. in 2017, “Splendid Suns” toured the West Coast and Canada, and several members of the Arena cast have been in multiple productions. Arena’s “Splendid Suns” is directed by Perloff and features the same creative team as at A.C.T., with a production design that’s wonderfully evocative: a color-changing backdrop stenciled with cutouts of the mountains around Kabul; saturated lighting that signals flashbacks and mood shifts; striking sounds of explosions and gunfire. The score by David Coulter (who has also worked with the Kronos Quartet and the Pogues) is almost cinematic in its layering, enhancing the immediacy of the drama.
“The music really affects the sensory experience of the play, I feel,” said Rani Sarma. “The book itself is so affecting on your emotions, and I think the music helps to create a similar type of effect in the theater.”
The two central female characters in “Splendid Suns” couldn’t be more different — although they share the same husband. Mariam (Hend Ayoub), the illegitimate child of a wealthy man and his servant, experiences a lonely childhood, raised by her mother in a hut outside the western city of Herat.
Nearly 20 years her junior, Laila (Mirian Katrib, reprising her role from a recent London production) grows up in Kabul, attending school and encouraged by her educated father to envision university studies in her future.
But after Laila’s parents are killed in the early 1990s civil war between the mujahideen warlords and the Russian-backed government, Laila marries the much older Rasheed (Haysam Kadri, who originated the role at A.C.T. and has appeared in multiple North American productions) out of desperation, becoming his second wife at age 15.
The play features other strong female characters, including an obstetrician who has to perform a Caesarean section on Laila without anesthesia because of the Taliban’s deliberate neglect of women’s health.
What’s compelling is “this story being through the lens of women,” according to actress Lanna Joffrey, who plays the doctor, along with Laila’s and Mariam’s mothers in other scenes. “From Mariam and Laila to this doctor, who is trying to do the best that she can with what she has. . . . She still is in the country fighting for her people.”
Although Mariam and Laila’s relationship is adversarial at first, they eventually develop a deep bond, drawn together through their shared desire for a better life and their increasingly brutal treatment by Rasheed, who is broken by personal losses and the hardships of war. It’s this relationship between women that gives “Splendid Suns” such emotional resonance and that, notwithstanding its setting amid the upheavals of recent Afghan history, speaks to universal yearnings for loyalty, courage and perseverance.
“My hope is that this play will show us that the people of Afghanistan are not that different from ourselves,” said Joffrey, who grew up in the United States after her family fled Iran ahead of the 1979 revolution. “We get to glimpse into other worlds, and understand that those other worlds are not that different from our own.”
A Thousand Splendid Suns
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300. arenastage.org.
Dates: Through March 1.