Review: The Kite Runner Reveals Complex Story of Guilt and Redemption

The Kite Runner is a contemplative play that spans decades, continents and various aspects of the human heart. The national tour production is currently playing at the CIBC Theatre through June 23.

I was fortunate to see The Kite Runner’s Broadway production in 2022. Set in the midst of gaudier, louder fare such as Beetlejuice and Chicago, the quieter-but-still-impactful Kite Runner seemed an ill-fitting addition to the Great White Way. This play with music is simpler in design and scope than one could experience at almost any other Broadway venue at the time.

In this regard, The Kite Runner may be too small-scale for audiences expecting dazzling theatrics, multi-wattage visuals or a complicated set. Instead, the play has long monologues with little action to distract one’s attention. It requires audiences to be thoughtful listeners and respectful observers as the narrative unfolds onstage. The play also raises insightful questions about the human capacity for empathy, justice, friendship and love.

Like the 2003 novel by Khaled Hosseini, the play’s story is told from the perspective of Amir, the main character. Ramzi Khalaf as Amir is exceptionally deft at conveying the arc of his character. Amir starts out as a young boy and matures into a married man who lives in the U.S., thousands of miles away from his homeland.

When the novel appeared, it sold more than seven million copies and was on the New York Times’ bestseller list for two years. The story was made into a 2007 film that slumped at the box office. After many more years, the novel has been adapted to the stage by Matthew Spangler.

Shahzeb Zahid Hussain as Hassan and Ramzi Khala as Amir. Photo by Bekah Lynn Photography.

The Kite Runner begins in Afghanistan in the 1970s. Two boys from very different backgrounds grow up in the same household and become the best of friends. They are about the same age. Their friends acknowledge that you would hardly ever see one of the boys without the other. Amir lives in a mansion owned by his wealthy father, and his pal Hassan (played by Shahzeb Zahid Hussain), the son of their servant, lives in a mud hut adjacent to the mansion.
The boys are from different ethnic/religious groups and different backgrounds, a fact that is pointed out repeatedly by some older boys in their neighborhood. Their sensibilities are rankled by Amir’s friendship with Hassan, who they feel is from an inferior caste. Amir tries to protect Hassan from their taunts and threats, but he is caught in the middle: he wants to do “the right thing” but is afraid of the consequences. Being an avid pacifist, Amir refuses to fight the neighborhood bully.

Instead, their confrontation comes into focus during a kite-flying tournament. This tournament is a rite of passage for boys in Kabul. Amir’s father Baba, one of the wealthiest merchants in the city, recalls winning the tournament when he was Amir’s age. So there is a great deal of pressure for Amir to win the tournament and improve his standing in his father’s eyes.

Amir’s “team” includes Hassan, who fills a number of important roles during the kite-flying competition.

When Amir wins the contest, Hassan’s job is to find the winning kite and present it to Amir. Once Hassan finds the kite, however, he is confronted—alone—by the bully and his friends. They commit a hateful act involving Hassan, who refuses to relinquish the kite at their insistence.

Salar Nader, tabla artist. Photo by Bekah Lynn Photography.

Watching from a distance, Amir observes the scene but feels powerless to stop it.

However, the event changes both boys’ lives forever. Hassan’s father decides they must leave the family. Amir’s father, Baba, is heartbroken at the news and tries to get the pair to change their minds. Amir’s feelings are mixed. He has always thought that Baba favored Hassan over him through the years, even after the kite-flying victory. And with Hassan out of the picture, Amir feels as though he might not feel so guilty about his actions towards Hassan.

Soon, war breaks out in Kabul. Baba takes Amir to live in California. Amir and Hassan never speak to each other again, as their childhood friendship is torn apart by distance and circumstance. Despite his new life as a married man in San Francisco, Amir never forgets what happened to Hassan. Only a journey of redemption to Pakistan allows Amir to somehow right the wrongs his has done to his old friend.

The scenes in The Kite Runner are marvelously rendered by the entire cast, under the able direction of Giles Croft. In addition to Ramzi Khalaf as Amir, other outstanding performances are given by Haythem Noor as Baba, Shahzeb Zahid Hussain as Hassan, Jonathan Shaboo as a relative and Awesta Zarif as Amir’s wife, Soraya.

One of the play’s highlights is the background music played by renowned tabla artist Salar Nader. He recreates his Broadway role for the national tour, playing a variety of drums and other percussion instruments as he sits on one side of the stage. His hypnotic melodies fill the theater during a prologue and throughout the play.

The Kite Runner plays through June 23 at the CIBC Theatre (18 W. Monroe St). Tickets are available at www.broadwayinchicago.com. The show runs 2 hours and 35 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Anne Siegel

Anne Siegel is a Milwaukee-based writer and theater critic; she's a former member of the American Theatre Critics Association, where she served for more than 30 years. Anne covers a wide range of Milwaukee theater for the city’s alternative newspaper. Her work also appears on several theater-related websites, including Third Coast Review.