Monday, December 10, 2018

130 (2018-2019): Review: NOURA (seen December 9, 2018)

"A House Is Not a Home"

One of the more distinct dramatic patterns over the past few years depicts the immigrant experience in America as told from the viewpoints of infrequently explored communities. Africa, Asia, and the Middle East have increasingly become part of the pattern, the newest example being Heather Raffo’s Noura, a sensitive but only passably successful work directed by Joanna Settle at Playwrights Horizons following its world premiere at Washington D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company. The work’s uniqueness lies in its portrayal of a Christian family that fled war-ravaged, Muslim-dominated Iraq to make a better life on these shores. 
Heather Raffo. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Apart from the intrinsic sociological interest such plays provide in exposing us to the cultures of folks we so rarely see dramatized, they almost always explore the difficulties of assimilation faced by these strangers in a strange land, with characters torn between the past and present as they struggle to determine their identities.
Liam Camporo, Matthew David. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Raffo (Nine Parts of Desire) is an American of Iraqi descent (her father's from Mosul). Almost all of her Chaldean relatives have left Iraq, where their community has practically vanished. She began developing her material in workshops she held with Arab-American women in New York. These helped refine the principal dilemma of Noura, whose title is the Iraqi name of a woman (played by Raffo herself) who, when she becomes an American citizen, changes it to Nora. That name’s connection to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is very much intended although Noura is in no way a direct adaptation of that play to modern circumstances. 
Nabil Elouahabi, Heather Raffo. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The highly educated Noura, costumed by Tilly Grimes in tight black pants, loose blouses, and an occasional shawl, and Tareq (Nabil Elouahabi)—now Tim—live in New York. They’ve just received their American citizenship and passports, after eight years. She’s from Mosul, he’s from Baghdad. He’s a former surgeon who worked at a Subway sandwich shop before getting employment as an E.R. doctor (his shaky hands prevent his doing surgery); she’s a trained architect who works as a teacher. Tareq strongly wishes to leave the past behind and assimilate, Noura’s worried about losing her connection to her tragic nation’s past and its traditions. 

Dahlia Azama, Nabil Elouahabi, Heather Raffo, Liam Campora, Matthew David. Photo: Joan Marcus.
They have an adolescent son, Yazen, called Alex (Liam Campora), who loves playing PlayStation, although its violence disturbs his mother even though she carried a gun in Iraq. Their closest friend is another refugee, a Muslim obstetrician named Rafa’a (Matthew David), whose admiration for Noura suggests Ibsen’s Dr. Rank. The final character is a sharply independent woman in her mid-20s named Maryam (Dahlia Azama). She’s an orphan raised by nuns in Mosul, who, thanks to Noura’s sponsorship, is studying physics at Stanford and will soon be writing weapons contracts for the Department of Defense.
Nabit Elouahabi, Liam Camporo, Heather Raffo, Matthew David. Photo: Joan Marcus.
It’s Christmas Eve, Noura’s been preparing Iraqi food for weeks, and she hopes for a joyful gathering with her family, Rafa’a, and Maryam, whom she’s just met for the first time. But Maryam’s six-months pregnant, the result of a deliberate decision to have a child. The father was a tool, not meant to be a parent. Does the nun-raised Maryam’s appearance at Christmas in her condition have some allusive religious meaning?

When Tareq learns she’s pregnant, he refers to her as a slut and tells Noura not to provide her with any more support. His unexpected reaction reveals how much he remains immersed in his cultural background, even as he desperately seeks to Americanize. The situation thus serves both to motivate what little conflict the play generates and offer a way to examine underlying emotional and social issues.

As the frequently torpid 90-minute evening proceeds, the tension gradually tightens. Sexual and romantic secrets are spilled, attitudes toward ISIS and Iraq are aired, the contrast between living in America and Iraq is discussed, the importance of retaining one’s roots is expressed, motherhood becomes thematically urgent, and a big reveal—seen coming miles away—opens wounds in Tareq and Noura’s relationship. Raffo’s dialogue is sometimes straightforward and natural, sometimes elusively vague and pseudo-poetic. While there are moments of insight and human warmth, too many others feel contrived and artificial.
Liam Campora, Heather Raffo. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Those looking for correspondences to Ibsen’s play will have to look closely since very few are apparent; don’t wait for a door to slam. One example is Noura’s sneaking cigarettes instead of macaroons behind her husband’s back. (Disappointingly, Raffo, like so many actors today, looks like she’d sooner be dodging terrorists in Mosul than puffing on an herbal cigarette, when they even know how to hold one.)
Heather Raffo, Nabit Elouahabi. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Andrew Lieberman has designed a puzzlingly antiseptic set (suitably well-lit by Masha Tsimring) composed of an imposing, doorless and windowless curved wall of backless pigeonholes whose lower portion holds a shelf on which reside a few odds and ends, including several piled-up books. A large Christmas tree is at one side and a round drafting table cum dining table with mismatched chairs at the other.
Heather Raffo, Nabit Elouahabi. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Noura—who, for undisclosed reasons, hasn’t bothered yet to buy a couch, much less anything else on which to lie or lounge—is forced to drop to the wooden floor to nap. Perhaps the intention is to comment on the emptiness of the house compared to the bustling, people-packed one Noura lived in back home, a modern version of which she’s designing as a gift for Tareq. Noura is preoccupied with the idea of “home,” a safe place for her family, but why she’d choose to live in what looks like a deserted library is anybody’s guess.
Heather Raffo. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Raffo, outstanding, leads a company of excellent actors, all of whom serve the material well. But Noura’s significance resides mainly in its presentation of well-trodden but powerful tropes regarding immigrants and assimilation embedded within a world that, for all its initial unfamiliarity, turns out to be pretty familiar after all.


Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through December 30