Inside the World of A Thousand Splendid Suns

Thursday, February 16, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

Mariam, Laila, and Rasheed—the characters at the center of A Thousand Splendid Suns, running through February 26 at The Geary Theater—may have begun in the mind of author Khaled Hosseini and playwright Ursula Rani Sarma, but their personalities are rooted firmly in their native Afghanistan.

Approximately the size of Texas, Afghanistan is a land of extreme beauty and extreme geographic diversity, ranging from towering mountains to expansive plains to barren deserts. Winters there are harsh, and summers sweltering. In this dramatic landscape live 32.5 million Afghans, a mixture of religions, languages, and ethnicities.

A timeline of Afghan history. By A.C.T. Graphics Team.
In 1979, the Soviet Union sent troops into Afghanistan to prop up a failing socialist government, but they were ill-prepared for the ferocious response of the Afghan people. When the Soviet troops withdrew in 1989, Afghans were hopeful that life would return to normal.

However, many of the militant groups that had fought the Soviets—known as the Mujahideen—turned against each other. The nation descended into civil war. One group shelled Kabul from the surrounding hills, while others fought for control of neighborhoods. It is during this dangerous period that Ursula Rani Sarma’s adaptation of A Thousand Splendid Suns begins.

Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo by Joe Burger, 2007. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Into this bloodshed burst a new group that looked like the answer to many Afghans’ prayers for peace: the Taliban. Spreading from the refugee camps in Pakistan in the early 1990s, the Taliban took control of most of Afghanistan by 1996. Many Afghans welcomed it with open arms, seeing in its fierce religious beliefs a solution to the violence that had plagued the country for almost two decades.

The people’s celebrations were short-lived. The Taliban believed that impurity and vice were the root cause of the country’s problems. Through its Department for the Preservation of Virtue and the Elimination of Vice, the Taliban issued edict after edict banning anything that might entice people to sin. Women were forbidden from working, attending school, and leaving their homes without a male relative to escort them. This is the political and social world that Mariam and Laila must navigate in A Thousand Splendid Suns.

A Thousand Splendid Suns runs through February 26 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about Afghanistan and the creation of A Thousand Splendid Suns? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. 

Relationships Take Center Stage at The Geary and The Strand

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman

Ah, young love! This Valentine’s Day, A.C.T. brings you productions that explore both sides of love: the bliss and the madness.

Childhood friends Tariq (Pomme Koch) and Laila (Nadine Malouf) in
A.C.T.'s 2017 production of A Thousand Splendid Suns. Photo by Kevin Berne.
In the world-premiere adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s novel A Thousand Splendid Suns, running through February 26 at The Geary Theater, childhood sweethearts Laila and Tariq are torn apart by the violence of the Afghan Civil War. Is their friendship and love enough to keep them safe during these turbulent years and bring them together again?
Actors Stacey Yen (Jenny) and Joe Paulik (Elias) at a rehearsal
for A.C.T.'s 2017 production of John. Photo by Shannon Stockwell.
The couple at the center of Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Annie Baker’s John, which opens at The Strand Theater on February 22, have the opposite problem; they are trying to save their relationship. At the beginning of the play, Jenny and Elias have just arrived at a bed-and-breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. They are on their way home to New York after spending time with Jenny’s parents in Ohio. But as soon as they are shown to their room, the bickering begins. Will this trip bring them closer together, or tear them apart?

A Thousand Splendid Suns runs through February 26 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. John opens February 22 and runs through April 23 at The Strand Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website.

Want to know more about these two shows? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

Director Ken Rus Schmoll on Annie Baker's John

Thursday, February 9, 2017

By Elspeth Sweatman 

"John is like going over to a stranger's house and sitting in their living room talking for three hours," says director Ken Rus Schmoll. At the first rehearsal for John at The Strand Theater, Schmoll introduced the play to a rapt audience of A.C.T. trustees, executive producers, staff, and students. "You listen to the other person's story and wonder about his or her secrets. Maybe you ask a few questions, and receive a few answers, but you ultimately leave with both more understanding and less."

Ken Rus Schmoll, director of A.C.T.'s 2017 production of John. Photo by Shannon Stockwell.
John, written by Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Annie Baker and starring Georgia Engel (The Mary Tyler Moore Show), begins with the arrival of twentysomethings Jenny and Elias at a bed-and-breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. But in this old house filled with shelves of smiling dolls and tchotchkes, the cracks in their relationship begin to surface.

"Some plays pack a lot of information, ideas, and thoughts into their 90 minutes," says Schmoll. "You can lose track of time and feel like you've lived an entire lifetime. It's a dazzling experience, and an important one in the theater. But Annie's plays are attempting the inverse of that: to never quite lose track of time, to tell a story in which everything is just hinted at."

First rehearsal for John. Photo by Shannon Stockwell.
For Schmoll, performing John in San Francisco now feels particularly meaningful. "I've been thinking a lot about the civil divide in our country right now, and the significance of doing a play set in Gettysburg, the site of the worst battle in our Civil War. And while John doesn't particularly address directly our current state, it does examine a world much larger than ourselves: the forces at work in that world and the boundaries that are beyond our comprehension. By pointing out this world, the play opens a door to a state of grace, a state of oneness. I don't know if we ever achieve this kind of oneness as human beings, but as [writer and political activist] Vaclav Havel said, 'It's easy to recognize our differences. What we have to do is try to remember how we're all the same.'"

John runs February 22 through April 23 at The Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. Click here to purchase tickets through our website.
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