Review: ‘Splendid Suns’ is radiant, real and raw at the Old Globe

A sun that’s spun from loops of wire arcs across the Afghan sky, over silhouetted mountains fashioned from fencing and scraps of fabric.

The visuals in “A Thousand Splendid Suns” are all the more arresting for their subtle sense of the makeshift — and that feel of salvaging something beautiful and worthwhile from the cast-off and forgotten is at play in every facet of this stunning stage production.

“Suns,” now receiving its Southern California premiere at the Old Globe Theatre, is Ursula Rani Sarma’s elegantly crafted adaptation of the novel by Khaled Hosseini, author of “The Kite Runner.”

At the center of its story are Laila (Nadine Malouf) and Mariam (Denmo Ibrahim), the two wives of a Kabul shoemaker named Rasheed (Haysam Kadri).

The pair’s saga stretches across a two-decade swath of Afghanistan’s agonies, from civil war to the Russian invasion and ensuing genocide and chaos, to the eventual advent of the ultra-repressive Taliban.

What emerges from the violence and suffering in Laila and Mariam’s lives is an unshakable bond of friendship and trust between these two very different people, and a fierce mutual determination to rise above the daily injustices of a time and place where women are dismissed, devalued and finally dehumanized.

Malouf and Ibrahim, who now have done several productions of the piece together, are so intimately familiar with these characters that they seem to interact on some instinctive, almost cellular level, from the early scenes of major friction between Laila and Mariam, through the gradual blooming of a tentative friendship into something like sisterhood.

Sarma and director Carey Perloff, the artistic chief of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater and a master of stage atmosphere, have chosen to start the play around the middle of the book, when a sudden tragedy leaves a teen-age Laila homeless and orphaned.

She winds up being rescued — although that comes to seem hardly the right word — by Rasheed, a neighbor who’s been married to Mariam for many years.

Mariam is deeply jealous and suspicious of the younger, more educated newcomer, and those feelings are only heightened by the often cruel and capricious Rasheed’s proposal to marry Laila, whom he clearly lusts after despite his pose of kindly concern toward her.

We learn a little about what might help explain the curdling of Rasheed’s spirit, but the play is wise not to give him excuses, and Kadri’s brave performance makes him fully dimensional and in many ways as pathetic as he is evil — a sad product of the intolerance he embraces.

In a raw and affecting flashback sequence, we also learn the horrific story of how Mariam landed where she is, and of the promise her life once held.

When Laila and Mariam clasp hands at the end of that scene, it’s a gesture that means everything, and — like much of the play — all but defies you not to be moved.

So the two make do, creating a life from the ruins, as Laila bears children that Mariam dotes upon, and both wives endure beatings within the house and without.

True to the play’s title — from a poem by Saeb-e-Tabrizi about Kabul and the “thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls” — light and even humor also shine through the cracks, as in a scene touching upon the curious real-life Afghan obsession with the movie “Titanic” some 20 years ago.

The story unfolds to the accompaniment of haunting original music from David Coulter, who performs live — often coaxing otherworldly tones from saw blades and other unconventional instruments.

Robert Wierzel’s lighting, on Ken MacDonald’s gorgeously evocative set, is especially effective in one scene where Rasheed exacts his revenge after his wives’ escape attempt; the stage becomes awash in crimson shot through by looming, spooky shadows. (Only one moment proves a bit much, when a giant splotch of blood appears on the backdrop after a scene of a terrifying hospital ordeal.)

The show also benefits from a strong supporting cast, including Antoine Yared as Laila’s lost sweetheart, Tariq; Nikita Tewani as daughter Aziza; Arden Pala as young son Zalmai; and Joseph Kamal in multiple roles, among others.

Along with telling an absorbing story, “Suns” sheds timely light on issues from the status of women to the continuing struggles of Afghanistan and the wider Mideast.

The exquisite stage picture that closes the show doesn’t promise any miracles, except maybe the small one of a few people remaking a family and a life against the most daunting of odds.

‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays (plus 2 p.m. June 6); 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays (no matinee June 9); 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through June 17.

Where: Old Globe Theatre’s Shiley Stage, Balboa Park.

Tickets: $30 and up

Phone: (619) 234-5623


Twitter: @jimhebert