Theater Review

War takes its toll in affecting 'Selling Kabul' at Williamstown Theatre Festival

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WILLIAMSTOWN — The setting for Sylvia Khoury's "Selling Kabul" — which wraps up its world premiere run at Williamstown Theatre Festival's Nikos Stage this weekend — is a small, comfortable apartment in Kabul, Afghanistan. It is spare but comfortable; the home of a seamstress named Afiya (a strong and compelling Marjan Neshat) and her husband, Jawid (an amiable, sincere and affecting Omid Abtahi), a tailor.

It is 2013, April. The American military is just beginning a major withdrawal from the war ravaged country. Afiya and her husband make Afghan army uniforms for use by the Taliban.

"Your husband is helping them access official places, places where they do harm, for what? A television set," Afiya's brother, Taroon, says with contempt and outrage to Afiya, shooting a withering glance at his sister and brother-in-law's new acquisition.

But that work for the Taliban has kept Afiya and Jawid alive and in comfort; safe; safe enough to give shelter to Taroon (an appropriately eager, impatient, impulsive Babak Tafti), whose work as an interpreter for the departing Americans has made him a target of the Taliban. Not even Afiya's close friend and neighbor Leyla (May Calamaway in a keenly observed portrayal of a woman facing terrors of her own), knows Taroon has been living with Afiya and Jawid. For their part, whenever the subject comes up, Afiya and Jawid gently assert they have no idea of Taroon's whereabouts. When people come to the apartment, Taroon hides in a closet or in the bedroom under Afiya and Jawid's bed.

This will not be an easy evening for Taroon, whose wife, Bibi, is having their baby — a boy, it turns out — in a nearby hospital. Taroon is chomping at the bit to visit his wife, Bibi, and their baby at great risk to everyone, especially when Jawid returns from the hospital and, while reporting that the birth went well and that Taroon is the father of a boy, there were some disturbing indications that Taliban may be, at last, closing in. Accordingly, Jawid has arranged for Taroon to leave that night — instead of a few days hence — on a journey that will take him to Teheran, where he presumably will join with Bibi and their baby and travel from there to Germany via Turkey and Bulgaria. Taroon has been existing on the hope of a promise made by the American for whom he worked to arrange for visas to America for Taroon and his family; a promise Afiya views with a fair degree of skepticism and cynicism.

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Arnulfo Maldonado's set — a portion of which is blocked to people seated in the first two seats off the audience right aisle — is a model of comfort and reassurance; a retreat from the terror outside. But by the time "Selling Kabul" runs its real-time course, life for everyone in Khoury's delicately crafted play will have changed dramatically and irretrievably.

"Selling Kabul," especially in director Tyne Rafaeli's shrewd, gracefully shaped direction, is a harrowing, poignant exercise that etches the cost of tyranny, corruption and terror in intensely human terms. The stakes couldn't be higher for Khoury's characters, each of whom is doing the very best they know to survive. This also is very much a play about parenthood; family; the obligations we have toward one another; the boundaries in relationships; the lengths we are willing to travel in order to assert our fundamental humanity. "Selling Kabul" also is about principles and what compromise of our principles might look like. And Khoury's play also is about hope, especially at a time when hope may well be little more than part of the collateral damage of war.

Khoury's writing is subtle, observant, canny, shrewd. Seemingly offhand references wind up looming large.

The cast is expert; true to the core of the emotional dynamics and needs that shape and move Khoury's characters. If there is a rock, a secure anchor at the center of all this, it is Neshat's extraordinary Afiya — a steady, sure, determined, resourceful presence who has found on Abtahi's Jawid an ideal life partner.

"Selling Kabul" is a small, compact, knowingly written and performed play. It says a lot.


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