Playwright Matthew Spangler’s adaptation of “The Kite Runner,” Khaled Hosseini’s bestselling 2005 novel about the friendship of two boys living parallel lives in Afghanistan, is a heartbreaker – but so uplifting, it’s worth the pain.
The scribe puts it succinctly when he tells us, in a program note for the current Broadway production, that “this is a story about a father and son; two best friends; a husband and wife; immigration; the relative peace of 1970s Afghanistan; global politics; class and ethnicity; and much more.” More pointedly, he adds that, above all else, this epic-scaled drama is “a story of guilt and redemption.”
If there’s a fault in Spangler’s meticulous adaptation and Giles Croft’s dynamically inventive direction, it’s that Amir (Amir Arison, who grasps this demanding role with both hands and holds on for dear life), the flawed hero based on the author’s biographical persona, is so exceedingly selfish and cruel to his loyal best friend in Act I, it takes herculean acts of atonement in Act II to earn his righteous redemption.
As narrator of his own story, Amir initially presents himself as an adult, but a call from Afghanistan offers him “a way to be good again” if he will return home — and to the pivotal events that forged his character at the age of 12. “I thought about how the winter of 1975 changed everything,” he says of that painful time and the lasting shame and guilt he still carries. And in an uncharacteristic burst of courage, he goes home.
At this point, Croft’s production unfurls like the beautiful, giant kites that dominate Barney George’s stunning set and serve as symbols of both the play’s flights of emotion and despairing depths. Working multiple transformations with the further help of Charles Balfour’s limpid lighting design, Drew Baumohl’s soundscape, William Simpson’s projections and the haunting musical background provided by an onstage tabla player, a mighty cast of around 20 ensemble actors animate the more than two-dozen characters who figure in Amir’s younger days.
The dominant character in the boy’s life is his Baba, his father, the richest merchant and most powerful personage in Kabul. Impressively played by Faran Tahir, Baba is a major deal in the business of the city and a semi-tyrannical patriarch at home. Content to rule the roost in his mansion, he doesn’t think much of his sensitive, bookish son, wishing he would excel at something — anything — including the ritual kite-flying contest that looks lovely as staged by Croft. In this competition, it’s not enough to fly your own kite; you must also demolish the kites of the other players and then run down their pretty corpses.
Amir’s childhood best friend is Hassan (Eric Sirakian), the son of Baba’s servant Ali (Evan Zes). Although the roles of master and servant and their respective offspring are worlds apart, the affection of the two elders is palpable in performance and as genuine as the friendship between their sons.
There are two beautifully choreographed scenes during this pastoral period before the Russians invade Afghanistan and decimate its capital city. One is the definitive kite competition, which is exciting and kind of scary, and the truly terrifying scenes in which a gang of local hoods bully Hassan to the point of violence. It should suffice to say that Amir doesn’t exactly turn into a superhero who vanquishes the bullies and rescues his forever loyal friend and servant (mustn’t forget servant).
A complicated and conflicted character from the outset, Amir allows his guilt over his childhood acts of cowardice to grow and grow until it seems to strangle his entire development. Within this context, it’s no wonder that his grown-up self jumps at the chance to redeem himself many years later. His journey to redemption is sad, but always beautiful and never less than deeply involving.