Adaptations of novels can be a tricky business. Novels are inherently quiet, with time for exposition, internal monologue, and the meandering passage of time; theatre demands urgency and action. In adapting Khaled Hosseini’s second novel A Thousand Splendid Suns, director Carey Perloff and playwright Ursula Rani Sarma tackled the challenge of boiling the author’s sweeping prose down to a “streamlined piece of dramatic fiction.”
With that goal in mind, both women separately chose a place in the book where they wanted to start the play. “We both marked the same page,” says Perloff with a laugh: the middle of the book, when a bomb strikes Kabul and orphans teenager Laila.
“I was really conscious of starting our story with a bang—literally,” seconds Sarma. After the blast, Laila’s neighbor Rasheed rescues her from the rubble and takes her as a second wife, causing palpable tension with his wife Mariam.
The book came after Hosseini’s runaway hit The Kite Runner and focuses on two Afghan women, both oppressed by husband and country, pitted against each other who learn how to coexist to survive.
“They couldn’t be more opposite in how they see life, yet it’s their coming together,” according to Sarma, that compels the narrative. That relationship became the spine of the play, which first premiered in 2017 at ACT in San Francisco, and now plays Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage through March 1. “There are almost no plays about female friendship, and yet, all of us who are women know that the lodestar of your life are your female friends,” says Perloff.
On the, literal, same page, Perloff and Sarma carved a piece that honored the poetry of the novel but expressed it theatrically. From the get-go, Perloff could visualize the production. Vibrant with color, the set echoes the desert of Afghanistan as it devolves during war. “[Scenic designer Ken MacDonald] took chicken wire, as if from rubble, and made it into these mountains up against a drop that is cut like a mountain range. The drop can open and reveal a beautiful sky of any color or shut and be an interior,” says Perloff. “It’s a swirling world of these doors [that make rooms and hallways] against a mountain landscape, on a floor that’s painted with this Afghan pattern. It’s very abstract and supple.”
The play moves through space (and time—through flashbacks) with a lyrical fluidity to capture the atmosphere of the city of Kabul, the realities of living in a war zone, and the authenticity of Afghani culture. An anthropologist as well as a director, Perloff is consistently drawn to stories about other cultures. “I deeply believe in cultural authenticity and in people telling their own stories, but I also deeply believe, maybe because I trained as an anthropologist, that our job in the world is to try to do a deep dive into other cultures and build a bridge,” she says.
In building the play for the 2017 staging, Perloff and Sarma collaborated with a cultural consultant as well as numerous members of the Afghan community, which numbers at 250,000 in the Bay Area.
“They taught us everything from how to sweep using an Afghan broom, to how you make sabzi, to what happened during the Soviet era when women could be educated, to how to wear a burka,” says Perloff. But more than these tangible skills, hearing the true stories of Afghani women—some of whom experienced domestic violence, like Laila and Mariam—informed the soul of Sarma’s writing.
With Suns she hopes to illuminate the endurance and resilience of Laila and Mariam and women like them, while also realizing that the situations in the homes halfway across the globe may not be so far from home. “You wanted people to be able to emote, to empathize, for some of these women’s trials and tribulations to feel like they could be yours,” she says. “What the play has to say about love and endurance and survival, it’s very much worth listening to, especially for a contemporary audience.”
With Suns, Perloff and Sarma manage not only to start with a bang, but make an impact.