When a production is heart-wrenching yet so exquisite, it causes a swelling of emotions, first in your heart, and then your soul. And few plays leave an audience submerged for 2 1/2 hours.

Such is “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” now playing at Seattle Repertory Theatre through Nov. 10. It is a joint production with the American Conservatory Theater.

Based on Khaled Hosseini’s 2007 bestselling novel by the same name, Carey Perloff directs playwright Ursula Rani Sarma’s deeply moving stage adaptation with power and sensitivity.

But “A Thousand Splendid Suns” is not for the fainthearted. Set in the war-torn neighborhoods of 1990s Kabul, its tragic and courageous story follows the plight of two Afghani women over three decades — through Afghanistan’s war with the Soviets, its civil war resulting in Taliban control, and finally America’s involvement against the Taliban.

Sarma reshapes the novel with brilliant insight. She focuses on the narrative of the two women’s friendship. Audience members probably won’t leave with a new historical understanding of Afghanistan, but rather with a new understanding of what it means to be a woman in Afghanistan.

Unlike the novel, which unfolds sequentially, Sarma slowly pieces together the lives of Mariam (Denmo Ibrahim) and Laila (Rinabeth Apostol), Ibrahim acts out Mariam’s life in flashbacks, while Laila stands to the side watching in horror. 

“Endure,” advises Mariam’s stony mother (Lanna Joffrey), and it becomes their common reaction. It is the least — and, for now, the most — they can hope for.

If you’ve read the novel, you already know that Mariam is a harami (illegitimate) daughter of a wealthy man from the small village of Herat. She lives in a hut on the outskirts of town with her emotionally unstable mother. When Mariam begs to live with him, he rejects her and forces her to marry a 40-something shoemaker named Rasheed (Haysam Kadri). Now the teenage bride of a fundamentalist Muslim, she finds herself in the large city of Kabul, and a victim to his cruelty.

While Mariam is trapped in a rigid existence, nearby Laila has a loving family, good friends, a boyfriend and dreams of a happy future.

As the play begins, Laila and her family are preparing to leave Kabul, when a stray rocket strikes their home, killing Laila’s parents and leaving her seriously injured.

Rasheed rescues her from the rubble, to become part of his household, doomed to the same dungeon of cruelty experienced by his wife. After Laila recovers her strength, he pressures her into being his second wife. As she’s already pregnant by her true love, Tariq (Antoine Yared), whom she’s told is dead, she has no choice but to accept the offer.

At first, Mariam naturally resents Laila, but she’s unable to resist Laila’s baby. That, combined with Rasheed’s domestic abuse, establishes a bond between the women that inspires their humanity and the resilience to survive the most heinous circumstances.

Despite the violence and brutality of their daily life, Mariam and Laila persevere. It’s so sad an existence that the thought of death is a welcome relief.

But something remarkable happens: the two women fated to begin as enemies finish as sisters.

Director Perloff creates a visually beautiful story, with the accompaniment of innovative music written and performed by David Coulter. Without overpowering the stage action, he weaves a perfect balance of drama, comfort and sorrow

The few props and furnishings on Ken MacDonald’s simplistic set are enhanced by the mood-shifting lighting of Robert Wierzel. And Linda Cho’s costumes reflect the way the color drains from everyday life in Kabul.

“A Thousand Splendid Suns” tells a story of enormous suffering, of a country and the people who live there being ground into dust. Women are still grossly undervalued and treated as the lowest class of people, repeatedly berated and punished for the sin of being born female. Yet they dare to hope.

This critic couldn’t help herself. Like many women in the audience, I squirmed, I gasped, and I wept. Empathizing with Mariam and Laila, I hurt when they hurt, rejoiced when they rejoiced, rebelled when they rebelled, and loved when they loved.

The entire cast is superb. As Laila, Rinabeth Apostol displays a wide range of emotions while Kadri makes Rasheed a convincing villain. Lanna Joffrey delivers harsh instability as Mariam’s broken mother, and Yared is endearing as Tariq, Laila’s true love. But it is Denmo Ibrahim who gives the most magnificent performance as Mariam. Ibrahim’s insight into her character embodies without overpowering the stage action: fear, sorrow, strength, and finally a glimpse of triumph.

As I watched her splendid performance, my heart shattered into pieces. And I was reminded of the words of a woman who survived the siege of Leningrad: “The human spirit can endure quite a lot.”      

This play proves she is right.

A Thousand Splendid Suns runs through Nov. 10. Tickets are $17-$87, and available at the Seattle Rep box office 206-443-2222 or online at seattlerep.org.