If you look closely at Heather Raffo’s Noura, receiving its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons, you can connect the dots to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which provided Raffo with some inspiration.
There’s the Christmas Eve setting. The way that Noura (played by Raffo) ducks outside to smoke cigarettes, like Ibsen’s Nora snuck chocolates. An outsider with a connection to our heroine of whom the patriarch disapproves: Iraqi refugee Maryam (Dahlia Azama), a Stanford student/budding weapons specialist who’s proudly six months pregnant. “What does it matter how bright she is—she’s not smart enough to keep her legs together,” sniffs Tareq (Nabil Elouahabi), Noura’s husband. (Remember Torvald’s disapproval of Krogstad in A Doll’s House.) Even the family friend—a doctor—who pines for the heroine; then it was Dr. Rank, here it’s Rafa’a (Matthew David), an obstetrician.
But Noura is no Ibsen retread; it’s very much Raffo’s own—an intriguing exploration of marriage, motherhood, heritage, and community that lingers long after its 90-minute conclusion.
When we first meet Noura, she, Tareq, and their son, Yazen (Liam Campora) have just received American passports—complete with Americanized names. She bristles when she hears Nora. “You changed by name against my will—call me by my real name,” she tells Tareq. He doesn’t see the distinction. “It’s hardly different,” he replies. But with the loss of that “u,” that unique sound, she is losing one more piece of her Iraqi culture, and she’s desperately trying to hang on to that.
Perhaps that’s why she’s so attached to Maryam, who’s from Mosul, her hometown. (It’s also where Raffo’s father was born. Her mother is American.) She tracked her down by her first name only on Facebook. She paid for her plane ticket, plus her room and board; she wants desperately for Maryam to be part of the family. Noura looks at Maryam and sees herself: “We’re the only people who survived exactly the same thing. And we’re finally together. Who else could possibly understand what we’ve seen?”
As it turns out, unfortunately, so does Tareq—who, all these years later, thinks his wife is “not honorable” for going to bed with him before they were married. “You were too easy,” he sighs, looking slightly downward. “You’ve never been restrained. Not once in your life. You don’t even wait for me to make advances. It’s belittling.” And if you think that’s shocking, wait a few minutes—Raffo has another surprise in store (which you might have seen coming).
There’s a bit of a wall around Noura, much like the title character herself. Raffo is a dynamic writer and performer, but she can be prone to speechifying. Which works in something highly structured—like her chilling 9 Parts of Desire, a collection of monologues that detailed the lives of nine Iraqi women. But in the context of a dinner-table scene, even an emotionally loaded one, a line like “there are so many days I feel utterly extinct” sounds like it’s from another world.
Noura opened at Playwrights Horizons Dec. 10, 2018, and runs through Dec. 30 at Playwrights Horizons. Tickets and information: playwrightshorizons.org