Review: ‘Selling Kabul’ at Northlight Theatre is a tense and truthful story set in Afghanistan

In “Selling Kabul,” the playwright Sylvia Khoury homes in on a recurring phenomenon of U.S. geopolitics in troubled areas of the world: the need for informants and fixers on the ground. That, of course, begs the question of what happens to such collaborators if they are discovered, including after the Americans leave. Most often, they’re at great risk. And this is hardly an issue limited to U.S. involvement. According to a report by the Associated Press, Palestinian militants in a West Bank refugee camp shot and killed two alleged enemy collaborators just last November.

In the case of this story, a finalist for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in drama and a taut 100-minute play set in one room, the action revolves around Taroon (Owais Ahmed), a man who has been working as an interpreter for the U.S. in Kabul. But in 2021, the U.S. withdrew its troops from Afghanistan, the latest entry in a decades-long journey of Western misadventure in that troubled land. Taroon suddenly loses his protection — just as the Taliban goes about settling scores.

Taroon’s wife, unseen in the play, also has given birth to a son (as life goes on in the war zone) and the show, directed at Northlight Theatre by Hamid Dehghani, opens with Taroon desperately trying to get an internet signal, a metaphor for his stateless status, his identity as a man who cannot stay in Kabul when the Taliban is tightening its grip but who also has not been sufficiently documented by the Americans to have a reliably safe passage out of there.

Taroon is hiding in the apartment of his sister Afiya (Aila Ayilam Peck) and her husband Jawid (Ahmad Kamal), both trying to navigate their roles in the new power structure even as they try to help Taroon. Complications flow from the presence of Afiya’s cousin Leyla (Shadee Vossoughi) who lives with her baby just across the hall and who has problems of her own.

Albeit with some nods to classical tragedy, “Selling Kabul” is a conventionally structured piece dependent on the progressive revelation of family secrets as danger lurks beyond the doors. There’s a lot of deep trauma happening all at once in this well-made play and you see some of the unspooling plot revelations coming. Northlight Theatre’s production, which could use more pace, doesn’t fully exploit the rush of energy to be mined in the writing, but it has a lot of emotional integrity, thanks in no small measure to a very strong cast of actors.

Peck, who is playing the anchor of both the family and the play, will likely move you, a consequence of the loving intelligence with which she imbues Afiya. Vossoughi has a very extroverted, and entirely whiplashed, character and an exceptionally challenging assignment that includes reacting to an unspeakable sudden horror — she pulls all of that in a very rooted way, which is no easy feet.

And Kamal, once he gets the chance, richly delivers the message of the play by showing us a practical, realistic man who constantly has to care for his traumatized family while making them coffee and asking them to face up to a reality now baked with betrayal.

Jones is a Tribune critic.

Review: “Selling Kabul” (3 stars)

When: Through Feb. 25

Where: Northlight Theatre at the North Shore Center for the Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Tickets: $49-$89 at 847-673-6300 or