The Tale of Two Afghan Women at Heart of New A.C.T. Play

by Jean Schiffman

A.C.T. brings “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” Khaled Hosseini’s epic tale of two women who lived in 1990s Afghanistan, to the stage.

“Mariam was five years old when she first heard the word harami.”

So begins Khaled Hosseini’s heart-wrenching, 2007 bestseller, “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” an epic set in his native Afghanistan. Little Mariam has dropped a treasured porcelain sugar bowl, and her mother, “through gritted teeth,” says, “You are a clumsy little harami.” Mariam does not know the word means bastard.

In the stage adaptation of the novel—now in a world premiere at American Conservatory Theater in a coproduction with Theatre Calgary—Indian-Irish playwright Ursula Rani Sarma begins with a different character: Laila, who’s 14 at the time and is packing up to escape Kabul. But before she and her family can leave, an incoming missile kills her parents. Laila, knocked unconscious, wakes up to see her neighbor Mariam, who’s in her mid-30s, standing by. It is 1992.

The intertwined fate of these two women in war-torn Afghanistan is at the heart of Hosseini’s novel, and of the play.

A.C.T. artistic director Carey Perloff, whose company is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, met Hosseini at an A.C.T. performance. To her surprise and delight, he agreed, when she asked, to give A.C.T. the rights to “A Thousand Splendid Suns.” Says Perloff, who directs the play, “I thought the central story, about friendship, was absolutely unique. We rarely see female friendships on stage. In American theater, it’s hard to find a female protagonist at all, and here are two female protagonists. That’s what drew me to the novel and to making a play out of it… . It’s so unlikely: these two women from different backgrounds, histories, thrown together in this incredibly difficult way,
absolute enemies at the beginning, becoming
so attached. I thought that would be a beautiful story for the stage.”

She commissioned Sarma, who’d written a play for the theater’s MFA students five years ago, to adapt the novel. Sarma jumped at the chance. Perloff went to London to meet with her. “We each had a copy of the book,” she says, “and within five minutes we decided the play should start with Laila losing her parents and meeting Mariam. The spine of the play would be that friendship.”

For Sarma, the entire developmental process—which resulted in an eight-actor, multi-character two-act drama—went just that smoothly.

“Khaled was so encouraging about me re-imagining the novel. I felt quite liberated by that,” she says. It was a daunting quest for the longtime playwright, who’s been writing mostly for film for the past four years: the book sold millions and was beloved throughout the world. She knew she’d need to create dramatic tension within a compact format, and convey information without undue exposition. For starters, she read the book four or five times, put it away and wrote the story as she remembered it. “I felt so connected to Mariam,” she says. “I’d just become a mother, and I was writing about her longing for a child.” She chose some of the novel’s stories to re-create verbatim as scenes that formed building blocks for the characters’ journey. She also invented some scenes, including several in which Mariam’s mother appears as a ghost. “It didn’t feel right for her to be left in the past,” Sarma explains. “It’s a very theatrical moment. I [didn’t want this play to] feel like a novel shoehorned into theater. I needed to breathe life into it.”

“For me, I want to see somebody else’s interpretation of the story—I’ve already seen my own,” says Hosseini, who emigrated here in 1980 when he was 15 and knew only a smattering of English. He lives in San Jose, was a practicing internist between 1996 and 2004 and is best known for his first novel, the 2001 international best-seller
“The Kite Runner.” He says that the joy of an adaptation like this one—he calls the script “very moving”—is in seeing what excellent playwrights such as Sarma do with the material. 

Like her, he feels a special connection to Mariam; in fact, he says, “She’s probably my favorite character in all my books.

“I seem to have known a lot of Mariams in my life as a boy,” he continues. “They worked as housecleaners, cooks…. Behind every woman you see in the iconic image of a burka”—which Mariam wears—“is a person with an entire history, experiences, thoughts—unimaginably complex. I drew on my collective memory of so many women in my years in Afghanistan and even on my subsequent visits after all the wars and things that have happened there. I was moved by her eventual fate. I share a special place in my heart [for her].”

“The Kite Runner” traced a father-son relationship; Hosseini says he had no special understanding of the opposite sex in creating this deeply empathic woman-to-woman relationship. In fact, he spent the first year of writing trying to understand what it’s like to be a woman in Afghanistan before realizing that wasn’t working. “I was too present in the pages,” he explains. “I was trying to occupy an emotional arena which I can’t.” Eventually he saw that since he couldn’t put himself in their place, Mariam and Laila would have to come to him; he had to focus on their core, their heart, to remember key things about them and thus to allow the characters to emerge spontaneously. When he did that, they began to speak their own thoughts in their own way. And the ending—which is heart-breaking and inevitable and hopeful—became clear. “A character begins as a sketch, just a blurry shape,”
he elaborates. “As you write, with each draft the character becomes more real. Maybe real is the wrong word. They step out of the fog and I see them in their fullness.”

Book and play are full of brutality, much of it perpetrated by the abusive Rasheed, the central male character; Hosseini says he has a long history with people like Rasheed. As a character, Rasheed is just as complex as the others, who include, in the play, the two women at various ages, their parents, their mentors, Laila’s lover, two children and more (the cast is made up of actors of Egyptian, Iranian, Indonesian and Lebanese background).

Perloff, who won’t shy away from depicting the visceral violence, says that Rasheed will be portrayed as a complex character who experiences love and despair, fear and humiliation just as fully as do the two women. ”If you understand his pain, I’ve achieved one of the major things I wanted to do with this play,” notes Sarma.

She concludes, “It’s about two women reaching toward each other in the dark,
surviving incredible hardships and pain, and creating living warmth. It’s about how love endures.”

Feb. 8 → 26

American Conservatory Theater

405 Geary St., San Francisco 749-2228