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Heather Raffo’s Noura is a modern reinterpretation of Henrik Ibsen’s landmark A Doll’s House that shifts the original’s action from a respectable, bourgeois 19th century Norwegian living room to the contemporary New York City quarters of an unmoored Iraqi refugee family. The point, then as now, is the dissatisfaction, frustration, and circumscription of women in a patriarchal society: a sledgehammer theme that dovetails with the regional Women’s Voices Theater Festival. The play, currently running at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, gamely tackles these issues but this is an imperfect do-over.
The family—Chaldean Christians—fled Mosul for New York City; in the new world, like generations of immigrants, they attempt to assimilate. On Christmas Eve, Tareq (Nabil Elouahabi), Noura (Raffo), and their son Yazen (Gabriel Brumberg), receive their new U.S. passports and new names: Tim, Nora, and Alex. Yazen has already acquired a passable American accent and an obsession with PlayStation violence. Tareq, a surgeon in Iraq, is celebrating his upcoming employment in a hospital that will raise the family’s standard of living beyond what they managed on the meager scraps he earned as a Subway sandwich artist. Noura, an architect in her previous life, has retreated to the role of housewife. Despite living in the U.S. for almost a decade, she is still unsettled and has yet to buy a couch for their bare living room, as Tareq reminds her repeatedly.
The family tries to recapture elements of their social life in Iraq but they cannot reassemble the large circle of family and friends that visited every Christmas. Many died in the war and others are scattered across the globe. Rafa’a (Matthew David), a Muslim friend from Mosul, is a regular guest at their house. Noura, still vested in the life she left behind, eagerly awaits the visit of an Iraqi refugee whose travel and expenses she has sponsored. This refugee, she hopes, will become a member of the family.
Maryam (Dahlia Azama) shows up with baggage, both emotional and physical: She has a scholarship to a West Coast university and an internship with the Department of Defense, but also a swollen belly and no man to take responsibility for the person gestating in said belly. Immediately, the modern façade is stripped away as traditional attitudes toward family, duty, and responsibility assert themselves. Tareq’s gung-ho adoption of American names and accents reveals itself to be surface-level when he refuses to accept Maryam and turns on Noura for sponsoring her and for pleading with him to accept Maryam’s choices. As secrets spill, Tareq reveals how, at a fundamental level, he thinks of his wife as a dishonored woman. “I had to marry you,” he tells his wife, to protect her honor despite what he sees as her betrayal. In a society where “shame is around every corner,” Noura was lucky Tareq saved her.
The cast performs well—Elouahabi conveys Tareq’s cultural values, as well as his desire to assimilate, while Raffo, in the titular role, captures Noura’s quest for identity. “Who was I?” she wonders at one point about her life. David is warm and understanding as Rafa’a, and Brumberg plays a child growing up in two cultures with nuance. As Maryam, Azama is defiant in the face of nay-sayers: She is pregnant and proud of it. The set, designed by Andrew Lieberman, relays Noura’s architectural training and aesthetic.
Raffo employs her Iraqi heritage to write contemporary plays that deal with the major political themes of the day. Noura thematically links with her 2004 play, Nine Parts of Desire, which chronicled the lives of Iraqi women. Her knack for contemporary themes and issues makes this work worth watching. She touches on many of the issues that immigrants face—the longing to return to a home that no longer exists, the desire to assimilate complicated by the inability to shed old values, the creation of new social structures that both retain and overcome the divisions of religion and race, and the wish to control the choices of the next generation that might have been corrupted by new values.
This time around, however, this flawed but powerful work leaves us dissatisfied. Raffo’s adherence to the structure of Ibsen’s work strangles this staging. The play hurtles toward a conclusion—Noura, like Ibsen’s protagonist Nora, finds the courage to assert herself—that feels imposed and unrealistic. Perhaps this was a directorial choice by Joanna Settle, but the speed and tumble of the conclusion undoes the hard graft of the first half of the play. However, even though this feels like a missed opportunity by Raffo, the play is still worth checking out as it lays bare the lives of immigrants in a way not often seen on the D.C. stage.
At the Lansburgh Theatre to March 11. 450 7th Street NW. $44–$92. (202) 547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.