The protagonist of Heather Raffo’s play Noura serves two competing agendas. The first is the playwright’s attempt to create a living, breathing character with plausible actions, thoughts, and emotions. The second is the playwright’s edifying message. Raffo’s concerns about the people of Iraq — she is an Iraqi-American — are as personal as they are profound. But it takes an actor with Denmo Ibrahim’s talent to make a coherent character from the playwright’s psychologically inconsistent script.
In the program notes, one of the artistic directors of the play, Torange Yeghiazarian, describes Noura as a nod to Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. First staged in 1879, Ibsen centers the dramatic tension around his Nora, her husband Torvald, and the moral crisis they face as a married couple. As the play develops, so too does Nora’s consciousness. She begins to bristle against the constraints of a paternalistic society that her condescending husband reinforces at home. Nora decides to free herself from this subordinate position. She leaves Torvald, and her children, to become an independent, autonomous person.
Raffo’s 21st century Noura, though, is already in exile when the play begins. There’s no place left to escape to. At some point during the war, she and her husband Tareq (Mattico David) left Iraq with their young son Yazen (Valentino Herrera). Now they live in New York City and are still undergoing the long process of assimilation. After eight years in the United States, they’ve all just become American citizens. Their passports have arrived in time for Christmas. The giant, decorated tree in their living room tells us that Noura and Tareq are Christian, not Muslim, a detail that’s meant to fulfill a underexplored subplot.
They’re expecting visitors for the holiday: Noura’s oldest family friend Rafa’a (Abraham Makany), and Maryam (Maya Nazzal), an Iraqi orphan, now college-aged, who they’ve been sponsoring for the past few years. On the outside, things are looking up for the family. After working in low-paying jobs since they arrived in the U.S., Tareq has recently started to practice medicine again after passing his exams. He encourages Noura to restart her architecture career. In her spare time, she continues to draw buildings, including a hypothetical compound to house the remaining members of their extended, scattered family — but she’s resistant to the idea. Unfortunately, we don’t ever find out why that is.
Ibrahim is a composed presence on stage. In each passing monologue, she slowly lets her character’s neuroses become visible. Given the context — hosting a holiday dinner — Noura’s stress level makes sense. But she becomes intermittently volatile and withholding, triggered by something other than the routine worries that come with hosting a dinner party. Before the guests arrive, Noura objects to the fact that Tareq Americanized their names on the passports. Tareq thinks it’s a change for the better so that they can move on and away from the past. His hands shake so badly he can no longer perform surgery.
That tenuous place, of living in between cultures, is an existential limbo for Noura. She’s been repressing this internal conflict since fleeing Iraq and is wracked with, among other symptoms of PTSD, survivor’s guilt. But seeing their new names (she’s become Nora) in bold print ignites her identity crisis. Is it right for her, for them, to abandon their past because the country’s now in ruins?
In Torvald, the audience can sense right away that he excels at mansplaining. But, given his limitations, he does love Nora. So it’s not an inevitability that she will leave him. That’s what’s still convincing about the play a century later. We watch the actor playing Nora awaken and come to her own conclusions about him and their marriage. Tareq, however, has an exasperating sudden shift in attitude toward his wife late in the play. The same man who encourages her to resume her career, and who doesn’t object to her intimate friendship with the clearly lovelorn Rafa’a, fundamentally condemns her.
But Raffo doesn’t structure her play the way that Ibsen does. Noura’s awakening isn’t about feeling caged in a marriage — hers is a political awakening. The American patriarchy went to war and destroyed her home, her family, and, she believes, an entire culture. Even though she and her nuclear family are safe, Noura can’t simply shed her past and accept this new identity. While this strains the character, Raffo also burdens Noura with another personal complication that brings the plot to a parboil. It’s not clear what action, if any, she’ll take to resolve her problems. I’m not sure Noura, as a character, evolves beyond the moods that Ibrahim crafts for her. Like the play itself, the psychology of the character ends where she begins, in a limbo caused by the fog of war.
Through Feb. 9, at the Marin Theatre Company in association with Golden Thread Productions, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley, $25-$70; 415-388-5208 or marintheatre.org.