Bound together in anxious silence with the characters onstage, the audience for director Shadi Ghaheri’s gripping staging of Selling Kabul (★★★★☆) at Signature Theatre might have been able to hear the actors’ hearts racing.
The Afghanistan-set drama by Sylvia Khoury, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2022, draws us fully inside the humble, endangered lives of Taroon (Mazin Azar), a translator desperately awaiting a visa to flee Kabul, and his sister Afiya (Awesta Zarif). Afiya, along with husband Jawid (Yousof Sultani), risks freedom and safety by hiding Taroon from the Taliban, and from the couple’s nosy neighbor, Leyla (Neagheen Homaifar).
Ghaheri’s production draws us close inside the characters’ dire reality, and Afiya and Jawid’s cozy apartment, rendered in textured, naturalistic detail by Tony Cisek.
Images on the living room television of former Afghan president Hamid Karzai — with Obama, with Putin — usher in the atmosphere of 2013 and America’s longest war, reinforced by the heap of Army fatigues piled in a corner. Well-timed sound design by Matt Otto extends the fraught atmosphere to the streets unseen beyond the apartment walls.
Who knows what enemies lie in wait for Taroon out there, but we can take his word — and Azar’s convincing performance — as all the proof we need that he’s wise to lay as low as possible. He’s been doing so for months, sometimes even hiding in Afiya’s coat closet. Yet, he also has the most compelling reason for wanting to break from hiding, and perhaps into a trap: Taroon’s wife just gave birth, two weeks early, to their son inside a hospital somewhere across the city.
But, as Afiya insists, nowhere in the city is safe for someone like Taroon, listed by the Taliban as a collaborator with the U.S. forces. Taroon did act as translator for an Army contact named Jeff, whom he considers a friend, as well as a vital conduit for the documents that might save his life. To Afiya, though, the countless American soldiers, unfamiliar faces changing year after year, amount to “a string of Jeffs” — a droll line that Zarif layers with rue and wit.
The characters tread a high wire of tension throughout, quick to draw curtains, and duck for cover at the slightest hints of danger. The thick veil of panic rarely lifts, except in a few instances where it seems the director has the right idea, but the performer isn’t entirely committed to the moment. Homaifar’s busybody neighbor Leyla reads as properly mysterious in a brief, gossipy visit with Afiya, but, later, when tensions explode, Homaifar’s take wavers in its conviction.
The play, which sweeps from subtle confrontations that hang on heavy pauses, to sudden, alarming outbursts, occasionally calls for performances big enough to rattle the wood paneling, and it’s exciting to see Zarif and Azar go there when they do. As Afiya’s supportive, if not as uncompromising, husband Jawid, Sultani does intriguing work on a quieter scale with a sympathetic character who, nevertheless, happens to do work for the Taliban.
Neither he nor Afiya appear to have any choice in that matter. Yet, their choice to harbor Taroon from the Taliban constitutes a powerful, courageous form of resistance. Not that their courage, or Taroon’s, much impresses Afiya, who admonishes her brother, “For me, raise your son without the word coward, or hero.” And, instead, imagine a peaceful world.
Selling Kabul runs through April 2 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., in Arlington, Va. A Pride Night performance is on March 10. Tickets are $40 to $98. Call 703-820-9771, or visit www.sigtheatre.org.
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