The tribulations of refugees and immigrants have been front and center on the world stage for some time now. Often these are reported in the context of the cruel or indifferent attitudes of the more fortunate. In her penetrating play Noura, award-winning playwright Heather Raffo takes us inside the New York City home of a seemingly well-settled, obviously loving, but also fragile family of Chaldean Christians from Iraq.
Raffo herself plays the title character with depth and élan. Noura loves her husband and her teenage son dearly, and the feeling is mutual. But this Christmas will see the first visit of a young Iraqi refugee they’ve been sponsoring, and Maryam’s arrival will reveal emotional depths and unleash family secrets.
Bonus points if you’ve already detected a parallel with Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Raffo makes no pretense of disguising the correspondences with that classic work, from the heroine’s name (Noura/Nora) to the profession of family friend Tareq. Just as Ibsen’s Nora Torvald has been keeping something from her husband, so has Noura – but a very different kind of secret.
Like much else in the play, that secret revolves around cultural traditions and attitudes. And tradition is just what Noura is trying hard to preserve as she prepares for Christmas dinner. A huge tree bedecked with ornaments and skirted with presents dominates the family’s apartment. But although Noura, her husband Rafa’a, and their son Yazen have lived here for eight years, the place still lacks a couch, as Rafa’a points out resignedly.
Rafa’a is in a good mood, seeking to heighten the festivities by celebrating his newly acquired U.S. citizenship. But Noura dwells on the old ways, which are slipping away, try as she might to hold onto them. Yazen, the only character without an accent, now insists on being called Alex, and plays video games whose violence Noura, who witnessed the real thing back in Iraq, can’t abide.
Besides Maryam, their old Muslim friend Tareq is the only guest expected for Christmas. This obstetrician is so much of the family that I took him for a sibling at first. He turns up with a story of prejudice, an American patient refusing to use his services because of his religion, appearance, or maybe even his accent. Accents are the production’s one creaky hinge. Noura knows that hers has affected her integration into American society. When these characters speak impassioned lines, their accents can hinder our understanding. I missed quite a few lines, including some funny ones. Fortunately most of the play’s strong dose of humor came through fine.
Twentysomething Maryam is accented too, having been in the U.S. for only a short time. The family has supported her as she pursues her studies in California, but this is the first time they will meet her. The life decisions Maryam has made shock Noura and Rafa’a in different ways, helping tear some scabs off the middle-aged couple’s old wounds.
Artfully directed by Joanna Settle, the actors bring these foreign but oh-so-recognizable characters vividly to life. Despite some elevated language, they feel lucidly, eloquently real. Noura’s scene with Alex is feelingly sweet. Rafa’a’s big outburst caps a remarkably earthy and focused performance by Matthew David, as we learn that he’s been hiding something for many years too. Nabil Elouahabi’s Tareq is just as real, and Dahlia Azama is thoroughly convincing as Maryam, defiant representative of the younger generation’s new mores.
The husband-wife confrontation stings with the blood of old wounds and the prick of humanity’s forked tongue. A decades-long marriage is at stake. But love abides. In fact, whatever your background, I’d wager you know these people. They’re versions of people in your own family, your own world. That’s the measure of Raffo’s accomplishment and the success of this Shakespeare Theatre Company/Playwrights Horizons production. It runs through 30 December. Visit the Playwrights Horizons website for tickets.