Suspenseful Selling Kabul at Northlight Strikes All The Right Nerves

Photo by Michael Brosilow

“Promote change of perspective and encourage compassion by exploring the depth of our humanity across a bold spectrum… reflecting our community to the world and the world to our community.”  Northlight Theatre’s mission is on full display in their current production of Selling Kabul, directed by Hamid Dehghani. Sylvia Khoury’s suspenseful drama, a 2022 Pulitzer Prize finalist, is no gentle tug on our emotional thread.  With a full-fisted grip on our collective conscience, the anguish that exists daily for many Afghans is brought to life through the story of one man in hiding, on one fateful night.  

Taroon served as an interpreter for the U.S. military in Afghanistan.  After the Americans withdraw, his protection is suddenly stripped, despite promises made to the contrary.  He is now being targeted by the Taliban, forcing him into hiding.  His sister Afiya and her husband Jawid are harboring Taroon in their small apartment.  Taroon’s days are long and suffocating; the threat of detection constantly looming.  He frantically works to establish an internet connection in a crouched position on the living room floor, desperately pecking at the keyboard and blowing into the modem.  He is certain that the U.S. military will send word of his visa papers.  His efforts are futile, and the steady red modem light persists.  Taroon is frenzied, and yet he must contain his agitation.  Not a sound can be made.  No light is to illuminate the apartment.  He is under strict orders to not turn on the television while Afiya and Jawid are away; a rule that he continually breaks. How many of us could resist the same temptation in an effort to distract and pass the time?  

Ripening the stress that persists, Taroon (Owais Ahmed) is anxiously waiting for word of his wife, who is expecting their first child to be born any day.  This particular night, Afiya (Aila Ayilam Peck) returns to the apartment with good news.  Taroon’s son has been born!  Joy spills over in hushed tones and a modest celebration is shared with desserts that Afiya has kept hidden for the occasion.  Behind Afiya’s eyes, though, we see she is hiding something else.  Her elation runs parallel with fear, which she successfully dispels when Taroon presses for more details.  Ahmed and Peck are remarkable in this scene.  Khoury has delicately woven humor into her character introductions, and the pair of actors wonderfully portray sibling synergy that so many of us relate to, no matter the culture, time, or space.

What is Taroon to do now?  This is the greatest moment of his life.  He must see his wife and new son.  But how?  He dare not leave and be caught, for his demise is imminent.  Before a decision can even be discussed, Afiya’s dear friend and neighbor, Leyla (Shadee Vossoughi), comes knocking.  Afiya tries, in vain, to dismiss her.  Taroon hurriedly retreats to his closet hiding space and Leyla, whose boisterous and sunny disposition is quite contrary to Afiya’s, fills the apartment instantly with her charisma… and her questions.  Tiny morsels of suspicion begin to appear as the women converse.  Afiya’s growing tension is saved by the arrival of her husband, Jawid (Ahmad Kamal).  With a clever, impromptu scheme to send Leyla back to her apartment for a few moments, Jawid and Afiya quickly discuss their next steps, and how they will conceal the whole truth of the evening’s events from Taroon.

Khoury’s script is nothing short of suspenseful perfection.  The images and flashes of news from Afghanistan that come across our television screens and smartphones are largely generic, one-sided, and easily forgotten.  Selling Kabul lays bare our shared humanity.  Northlight’s production team collectively brought all the pieces together to create an emotional ride through an evening of dire circumstances.  Claire Simon’s casting is exceptional.  Ahmad Kamal (Jawid) and Shadee Vossoughi (Leyla) are standouts in this small ensemble.  As undisclosed information is revealed and admissions are made, pressure steadily rises to a boiling point.  Kamal and Vossughi are spellbinding in their dramatic talent.  Grief and fervent sympathy pour over as each player is faced with unimaginable decisions.  The tension is made even more palpable by Maximo Grano de Oro’s lighting design and Jeffrey Levin’s sound design.  Flashing car lights and loud engine sounds flood the black box theatre periodically, reminding us of the ever-present danger of the predatory Taliban fighters.  This production is not merely a play, but an experience that takes the audience on a journey of reflection.  Artistic Director BJ Jones offered this poignant statement; “The urgency and tension in Selling Kabul is an accurate reflection of what is occurring there, and the damage that even our best efforts and intentions can cause in cultures that are so different from our own.”

Selling Kabul is now playing at Northlight Theatre in Skokie through February 25.  Northlight is located at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd.  Show times vary.  An open captioned and relaxed / sensory friendly performance will be held on February 16 at 7:30pm.  An open captioned and audio described / touch tour performance will be held on February 17 at 2:30pm.  

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