The Review: Heather Raffo’s Noura
There’s a very powerful story hidden deep inside branches of the Christmas tree center stage in the fascinating and relevant new play by Heather Raffo (9 Parts of Desire) at Playwrights Horizons. Noura, a probing new drama is a searing but complicating portrayal of an Iraqi Christian woman smashing up hard against her family and two cultures she is trying to navigate. The central dynamic arrival and revelation is a gift to the patient audience, as if we had to unwrap numerous packages of socks and underwear to finally get to the main present that has everything of value inside it. That idea, surprising in its pain and deeply felt anguish, is wrapped up neatly with all the long-buried memories of past choices with a bow of pain planted firmly in the center. It’s quite a gift at the end of this one act play, not enough to make sense of what we all just endured, but a good payoff to those who can tolerate the in between.
Directed with a random feeling of wandering by Joanna Settle (Public’s The Total Bent), Noura wraps up the titular character played frantically by the playwright, Heather Raffo (PH’s The Profane), a former architect from Mosul, in a living room reminiscent of a library that is referred to and packaged up, but discarded on the table after their meal. Barren of traditional furniture, Noura tries to find a way to celebrate the perfect Christmas dinner with her family, her childhood Muslim friend, Rafa’a, emotionally well played by Matthew David (East 13th St’s Glamping), and a fellow refugee with strong ties to Noura’s old life. Noura fled her homeland eight years ago with her husband, Tareq, now Tim, played clearly by Nabil Elouahabi (West End’s Oslo) and son, Yazen, now Alex, played awkwardly by the eager young Liam Campora (Broadway’s Marvin’s Room), and now, like a gift from Santa, the three have finally gained citizenship status albeit with changes to their given names. That’s a complicated side note that, like so many other presents under the tree, never gets fully opened up or consumed completely. There is a lot to celebrate in this successful home made up of the displaced, but with the early arrival of a young female visitor named Maryam in the form of Dahlia Azama (WP’s Veil’d), long-buried memories and unspoken decisions come pouring out for each and everyone to bite their teeth into. It’s a feast of revelations, layers upon layers of hidden discomforts, mashed together into a dish that is far too complicated with different flavors and ingredients to really absorb or taste. They out-power one another, leaving Noura and her husband desperately grasping at straws in order to confront the cost of their choices, and retrace the past they left behind .
With compassion and an attempt for clarity, truths are told, and alliances are attempted, but somewhere, thrust haphazardly into the branches with the other rolled up presents, numerous moments are lost or forgotten, and plot-lines squandered. On an oddly transparent set, designed by Andrew Lieberman (Broadway’s Picnic), with fussy costuming by Tilly Grimes (PH’s The Thanksgiving Play), standard lighting by Masha Tsimring (The Kitchen’s Electric Lucifer), and solid sound design by Obadiah Eaves (Broadway’s Saint Joan), snow begins to fall. At first outside, than for no apparent reason, the snow beautifully begins to cascade down inside their Christmas-clad living room. It’s metaphorically lovely I guess, but disregarded by all. The spacial alignment is off, never feeling like the structure is connected to the moment. It keeps us at a distance from the pain, and without that entanglement, Noura feels like a series of talking points about someone’s disturbing but disjointed journey from there to here, that never really gets inside us.
It’s worth the wait though, in the end, for that last powerful unwrapping, and exposes all the fragile structures of home, culture, marriages, and secrets that have been held tight regardless of the discomfort that burns. Raffo wants us to look at a woman’s desperate and impossible options, especially as she transverses borders and cultural definitions, seeking family and security in a land far far away from her home and her heart. There’s honor in the twists and turns, but a muddling in the middle that tries the patience of all that would like to embrace the desperate and insecure Noura. She hasn’t been given a fair shot though, mainly because of her own disjointed revolution.