WATERTOWN — As we rose from our seats after the opening-night performance of New Repertory Theatre’s “The Kite Runner,’’ my companion exhaled three words: “What a journey.’’
Indeed. Directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue from Matthew Spangler’s adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel, the New Rep’s “Kite Runner’’ is a compassionate, deeply moving, event-packed journey across eras, cultures, national boundaries, and the emotional terrain of tumultuous lives. The fact that the trip also includes a detour into melodrama and hard-to-swallow coincidence doesn’t diminish its overall power.
Vaan Hogue adeptly handles the storytelling challenges of “Kite Runner,’’ bringing clarity to its changes in setting and tone as the action ranges from strife-torn Afghanistan in the 1970s to freewheeling California in the 1980s and ’90s and, eventually, back to Afghanistan, not long before the events of 2001 put that country in the international spotlight.
For Jim Petosa, launching his tenure as artistic director at New Rep, the production represents an auspicious beginning. For Nael Nacer, a subtle young actor who has been steadily building a reputation since his eye-opening turn two seasons ago in Annie Baker’s “The Aliens’’ at Company One, “Kite Runner’’ represents the kind of showcase his talents deserve.
Nacer responds with a bravura performance, delivering a vividly etched characterization of a writer named Amir, who leaves Afghanistan in his teens but remains haunted by youthful acts of cowardice and callousness for which, three decades later, he gets a chance to partly atone.
Partly. People suffer greatly, and permanently, because of what Amir did and failed to do; certain losses cannot be repaired. That knowledge lives in Hosseini’s book, Spangler’s script, and Amir’s eyes.
The adult Amir watches as the events of his past play out in the first act of “Kite Runner,’’ often providing narration and commentary and sometimes bounding across the stage next to his 12-year-old self. Fahim Hamid portrays young Amir, whose constant playmate is the placid, sweet-natured Hassan (Luke Murtha).
Even as they engage in shoot-em-up games inspired by American westerns or prepare for a kite-fighting tournament, both boys are aware of the social gulf between them. For one thing, Hassan is Amir’s servant, and the son of Amir’s father’s servant, Ali (Johnnie McQuarley).
For another, Hassan is a Hazara, a lower social caste, while Amir is a Pashtun, part of the ruling class. Yet Hassan is loyal and devoted to Amir in a way that runs deeper than class, and has to do with friendship, at least from his perspective. “For you, a thousand times over,’’ Hassan says to Amir at one point, in words that will echo through “Kite Runner.’’
With his bookish ways, Amir is a disappointment to his sternly forbidding, business-minded father, Baba (the estimable Ken Baltin). The boy hopes to change that by winning the kite contest, and he does indeed prevail in the tournament, which is ingeniously staged by Vaan Hogue in a swirl of color and action on the stark stage designed by Paul Tate dePoo III.
But Amir’s crowning triumph coincides with a defining moment of profound moral negligence. He fails to intervene as Hassan is brutalized by a neighborhood thug (John Zdrojeski, compellingly creepy). Unable to deal with his guilt, Amir takes an action that has further life-changing consequences for Hassan.
And for Amir himself. “Kite Runner’’ shows how the secret gnaws at him while his life unfolds: the flight from Afghanistan with his father after the Soviet invasion; the beginning of his career as a writer in America; his marriage to Soraya (Paige Clark), the daughter of a former Afghan general (Dale Place).
Then, one day in June 2001, Amir receives a phone call telling him: “There is a way to be good again.’’
That way requires Amir to confront his past in a fashion that is perhaps more literal than strictly necessary. Though dramatically gripping, aspects of the play’s second act strain credibility.
But the same can be said of Charles Dickens. As with much of Dickens’s work, there’s a universality to “Kite Runner’’ that goes beyond particulars of time and place, coupled with an understanding that choices made, regretted, and maybe even redeemed lie at the heart of our human journey.