“Read the book. But see the play first!”
That’s what Hend Ayoub—the actor who plays Mariam, the empowered first wife of A Thousand Splendid Suns—told me about the show, now in its first DC run at Arena Stage.
“The book is amazing,” she said, as we settled down for a telephone interview shortly after the play opened. Even more amazing, it seems, is the fact that it took ten years for the novel to make it from the bestseller lists—where it reigned for 70 weeks—to the stage, where it had its worldwide premiere at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater in 2017.
Now this scorching drama has arrived at Arena, where it is setting new records for a local debut. (Click here for Bob Ashby’s review in DC Theater Arts, where he sums it up as an “emotionally wrenching portrayal of profound love” and a “superb physical production.”)
Credit for the play goes to Ursula Rani Sarma, the Irish-Indian playwright who adapted it from Khaled Hosseini’s book, and Carey Perloff, who directed both the original and the Arena production. (Molly Smith, Arena’s Artistic Director, calls it “the crowning achievement” of Perloff’s ACT career.)
Ayoub, who is also new to DC, is a Palestinian Israeli. Originally from Haifa, she performed in Hebrew and Arabic, but left the country 14 years ago in order to further her career.
In Israel, as elsewhere, she remarked, “There are limited opportunities for minority actors.”
In this country, there are plenty of roles in TV and film for a Middle Eastern actor. The problem, she added, “is that many of the roles are stereotypical—the wives of terrorists, for example.”
Luckily, Ayoub has had a lot of good roles on stage and screen. On Broadway, she played opposite Robin Williams in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. On TV, she’s appeared in leading roles in Orange Is the New Black, Madam Secretary, and Comedy Central’s Watch List. She also co-starred in the Emmy Award-winning film Death of a President.
In A Thousand Splendid Suns, Ayoub plays Mariam, the illegitimate child—called ‘haremi’ (literally ‘child of the harem’) in Arabic—of a wealthy married man who wants nothing to do with her or her cast-off mother. The two are sent to live in utter privation, in a hut on a hillside far from the city. She grows up illiterate and poor, then is sold in marriage to a man named Rasheed, a shopkeeper in Kabul.
The play begins 15 years later, in 1989, when Mariam—childless and scorned—is forced to accept the arrival of a second wife into her home.
The new wife is Laila, and she is as young and as privileged as Mariam is not. The daughter of a college professor, she survives—and is pulled from the wreckage by Rasheed—when her home is shelled and her parents killed during the final siege of the Soviet war. Orphaned, and thinking she has no choice, she marries Rasheed and produces a child.
Unfortunately—for this is Afghanistan, where contempt for women is deeply rooted in the culture—the child is a girl. Mariam, whose jealousy until now has bordered on rage, becomes the unlikely caretaker of both the mother and the unwanted infant.
A friendship develops between the two women. It blossoms, over the years, into a love as luminous and deep as the mother-daughter relationship that both yearned for, but never knew.
The role encompasses an enormous range, and Ayoub is a master of every inch of it. She moves seamlessly back and forth in time, from the unwanted child who thinks her father will take her in, to the embittered wife, then surrogate mother, protector and ultimately sister-friend.
The most difficult part of the role, she told me, was having to learn it on short notice—just two weeks before the opening—when everyone else in the cast had appeared in one or more previous productions. “The technical aspect is particularly demanding,” she said.
The scenes of beatings are especially harrowing, as Rasheed, deprived of his income and his pride, takes out his rage on the women. Mariam, perceived as the instigator, bears the brunt of it.
Although the book was written more than a dozen years ago, its message, according to Ayoub, is just as relevant today as when it first appeared.
“The play is about women struggling to survive in Afghanistan over the course of many years. It particularly documents the cruelty of the Taliban, who, despite years of US intervention, still rule much of the country,” she said.
“And it’s not just Afghanistan,” she added.
“The play’s message is universal. Women are fighting for self-determination right here in America. Domestic violence is all around us. Here in the US, on average, three women die every day at the hands of men who seek to control them.”
Little wonder that the show has received standing ovations at every performance. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of those who attended—and stood to applaud—at the opening last week.
This is a play as powerful as its title.
For Ayoub, who radiates hope and joy despite the sorrow, it’s about survival. “Yes, it’s a heartbreaking story, but it demonstrates the capability of endurance.”
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.
Special thanks to Arena Stage for a program note that recaps the often confusing history of Afghanistan from its independence in 1919 to the period just before the US invasion.