Review: 'A Thousand Splendid Suns' at the Max Bell Theatre

Vicki Trask

OnStage Calgary Critic

There are few shows these days that leave an audience holding their collective breath for two and a half hours; something so visually stunning with such a powerful message that everyone is physically invested in the show. I left Theatre Calgary’s latest production of “A Thousand Splendid Suns” practically shaking. Based on the novel by Khaled Hosseini and adapted by Ursula Rani Sarma, the Max Bell Theatre in Arts Commons is transformed into Kabul, Afghanistan in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. We follow a young Laila as she struggles to survive, and maintain hope and determination in a treacherous time. It’s an incredibly commanding script told by talented actors with purposeful movement that, at times, felt more like a graceful dance than a grizzly, real tragedy.

Director Carey Perloff has created a visually beautiful story with the accompaniment of stunning music written and performed by David Coulter; a man who has brought the perfect balance of drama, comfort, and sorrow to the stage from his little corner of the theatre.  Never was the score overpowering or disjointed from the story being told. Amazing; just amazing.

Ken Macdonald’s set design was practical, simplistic, and easy to use – which, I admit sounds like a sales pitch for an infomercial but I cannot tell you how distracting a heavy or dysfunctional set is to seamless storytelling. At no point did I lose focus because a set change was pulling my eye. Thank you to Scott Morris and everyone who built the set pieces. Speaking of building, I am in love with the costumes designed by Linda Cho. She used gorgeous fabrics and obviously researched (though I can’t personally speak to its authenticity); I also admire that some of the pieces operated on function over appearance. Quick changing even a single item is not a challenge easily met and while the “look” wasn’t always clean, every piece made sense and helped to tell the story. Josh Rodriguez’s sound design just made me happy. Two words: screaming baby. I loved seeing onstage and created sound combined. It gave the audience a tactile way to engage. That, combined with lighting designer Robert Wirezel’s use of focus and projections created a very real world for the actors to play in.

Nadine Malouf plays Laila, our story’s protagonist. I have no words. Nadine gave an incredibly powerful performance, aging and surrendering with just a look. Her body language was well established and she clearly embodied this woman. I could not take my eyes off of her.

Her counterpart Mariam was equally fabulous. Kate Rigg had such stillness to her. The use of quiet and bursting emotion was a wonderful balance – especially against Haysam Kadri’s intense brutishness. Rasheed is a dark and “traditionally masculine” man and I saw such focus and control; I absolutely applaud Haysam’s command of this character.

Pomme Koche’s portrayal of the boy-next-door Tariq was positively charming. His constant gentleness was a kind reprieve from the brutal world in which he exists. Pomme had an excellent habitual movement and created a sweet, universally recognizable love story. And then there was Denmo Ibrahim as Fariba, Nana, and the Doctor – all incredibly strong women in their own way. She was simply beautiful in each role; creating distinct characters but keeping a grace and fluidity about her movement. I was entranced.

The rest of the cast blew me away. They came together to tell this story and it was incredible to watch. I cannot recommend this production highly enough. Theatre Calgary has an amazing show on their hands.