In essence this play tackles three pertinent issues: the attempt to span two radically different cultural identities, self realization weighed against community, and historical guilt. Fortunately, it does so through characters with whom we find sympathy if not empathy. On the one hand, it wouldn’t hurt to know something about Middle Eastern tradition. On the other, these immigrants might as easily come from elsewhere in the world fleeing similar disintegration of their homelands.
Heather Raffo and Nabil Elouahabi
Noura (playwright Heather Raffo) left Iraq eight years ago with husband, Tareq (Nabil Elouahabi), and son, Yazen (Liam Campora). Unable to insinuate herself into the field of architecture she had to abandon, she teaches. Tareq, an obstetrician in their home country, works at a low level job in an emergency room. Under the assimilated names Nora, Tim, and Alex, an unexplained necessity Noura resents, they’ve just achieved American citizenship creating new opportunity.
It’s immediately apparent that Noura feels compromised; bound to and severely missing her roots, while her husband is grateful and pleased with the new life they’re creating. (Yazen is more or less Americanized.) Heavy handed about maintaining custom and connection, she’s insistent the family fast Christmas Eve, go to mass, and sit down to a time-honored meal.
Liam Campora and Matthew David
Tareq and family friend, Rafa’a (Matthew David), have arranged a significant/ telling gift to be sent from Iraq. (Rafa’a confusingly enters without identification. We don’t know his circumstances, whether he’s friend or relative.) In turn, employing her craft, Noura has created an equally important O. Henryish present for her husband.
The heroine has also arranged for the visit of an orphan girl she’s contributed to supporting far beyond Tareq’s knowledge. Maryam (Dahlia Azama) escaped from their home town and now attends college in California. Her importance to Noura during the holiday can’t be overstated. Neither we nor the family find out why till much later.
When Maryam arrives, Noura is distressed to find a contemporary young woman at ease in her skin, unaware of or disregarding visiting customs, unmarried, and pregnant. The new immigrant is fine with her situation, her sponsor appalled. Tareq, Noura knows, will judge even more harshly.
We spend Christmas Eve and day with these characters as secrets are revealed and schisms occur.
Dahlia Azama, Nabil Elouahabi, Heather Raffo, Liam Campora, Matthew David
Heather Raffo’s play is meaty, but difficult. It seems to lurch rather than flow. We get no sense of Noura’s relationship to her husband before everything hits the fan. Rafa’a is an amiable cipher. The unresolved ending feels like a cop-out. There are important ideas here, applicable beyond the situation, but, in the end, the piece is less satisfying than it might be.
Direction (Joanna Settle) has pleasures and irritations. When Noura steps outside to smoke or stretch, we feel the emotional climate change. A push by Rafa’a speaks volumes. Maryam’s loosey goosey physicality is descriptive. Tareq’s restraint takes a visible toll. On the other hand, Noura often seems to walk the curved length of the room when she could just bisect it or circle the table more widely than natural. Her reaction to Rafa’a’s secret is surprisingly nonexistent.
Heather Raffo is clearly invested as an actress, though performance is a bit one note. Nabil Elouahabi feels solid and real as does Dahlia Azama.
Andrew Lieberman’s good looking Set seems to indicate a higher income level than the script indicates. Tilly Grimes’ Costumes aptly illuminate character.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Heather Raffo
Noura by Heather Raffo
Directed by Joanna Settle
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage
416 West 42nd Street
Through December 30, 2018