UNION — Premiere Stages, at Kean University, is currently staging “Selling Kabul,” a play about the tenacious strength of family and culture to survive a collapsing social order.
It is a 100-minute play staged in real time without intermission having its New Jersey premier. The span of time witnessed by the audience is the same allotted to the play’s four characters, who confront irrevocable decisions. This adds a dimension to the work, a 2022 Pulitzer Prize finalist written by Sylvia Khoury.
While the concerns are universal, the actions of the play tell the audience that, although this is a situation America helped to create, what you see and hear passing by you is not part of your spectators’ world. “Selling Kabul” is more than worthwhile entertainment.
As the lights come up, we hear the sounds of a roaring wind and a crying baby. It makes one think of survival with good reason. We are in a comfortable apartment, in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.
American soldiers are withdrawing from the country, leaving a power vacuum for the repressive Taliban to fill. We learn this from Taroon, an Afghan who worked as an
American aide, who is hiding in his sister’s apartment. This is where the action is set. He holds paperwork, his job evaluation, and speaks of the documents, given to him by a departed American, “Jeff,” as if they were magical. He is certain they will help him obtain a visa to America.
Taroon is played by Zaven Ovian. As a former translator for the Americans, he is a hunted man. His sister is Afiya, played by Atra Asdou. Asdou plays her part with familial dedication to her brother and husband. When there are little respites to her responsibilities, her portrayal of Afiya has flashes of youth and sweetness, enough to make one think of women, in other cultures and under other pressures, becoming old before their time. In fact, implication plays a strong hand in “Selling Kabul.”
There are four characters that appear on stage, but there are four others, all family members, who are discussed, and their impact is overreaching. The Taliban is beginning to insinuate itself throughout society and no one is safe. In this play, hearing is believing and audible gasps were heard from the audience when a senseless off-stage tragedy was related.
The tension of “Selling Kabul ” comes not only from Taroon’s presence in his sister’s apartment, but also his need to see his wife, who has just given birth to their son.
Ovian’s portrayal of Taroon is well-composed from fits and starts from two sources: He is the younger sibling still requiring his sister’s care — their mother had told him that his sister, Afiya, had twice as much sense as he did because she has her sense plus his sense — while exhibiting the need to become an independent man and father.
He says he is willing to risk everything to visit his wife and son in a Kabul hospital. This makes his sister angry. She points out that he’s a threat to them and indicates maybe he should go, but Taroon retreats to his off-stage hiding place.
Infants have an important off-stage presence in “Selling Kabul.” The crying baby at the beginning we learn belongs to Leyla, played by Anat Cogan, a neighbor who lives down the hallway.
Cogan is a great addition to the play. She has real comedic talent, as the friend who means well, but is a little too nosey about it. But when the Taliban kidnaps her child to force Taroom’s whereabouts from her or her husband, she reacts with the play’s only on-stage act of violence.
Afiya’s husband, Jawid, is a clothing manufacturer played by Afseen Misaghi. He has thrown his lot in with the Taliban and makes military uniforms for them. Misaghi plays his part with a depth of unassuming masculinity. He feels great shame for himself, having allied with the Taliban.
“I have sold Kabul for a television set,” he tells Taroon when they are alone. “I hide behind my store. Greater men risk everything.”
Taroon replies that he is no pillar of strength. Whatever strength he possesses, it is because of his wife.
But it is Jawid, burdened by untold truths, who at the play’s end presents Afiya with hope — a crib for Taroon’s infant child — as her brother flees into the night for refuge in another country.
Directed by Taylor Reynolds, “Selling Kabul” will run until Sunday, Sept. 24, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. The venue is the Bauer Boucher Theatre, on the Kean University campus.
For more information, go to premierestagesatkean.com.