“I don’t want to forget. I’m trying desperately to remember who the hell I am.”
Forced by a life-threatening siege to leave her home in Mosul as a member of the Iraqi Christian community, immigrant and now American citizen Noura wants this Christmas Eve to be perfect in every respect, recalling the foods and family times of those Christmases spent in her homeland – a country whose Christian heritage can be traced back to the time of Jesus. That her husband, Tareq is happy to “feel safe for the first time in my life,” that her son Yazen (“Alex,” as he prefers to be called) knows no Arabic and only wants a Play Station, and that her life-long friend Rafa’a advises her, “Let it go, Noura, how we grew up is never coming back,” does not calm Noura’s sense of unease with her present and her longing for a recent past that others say can never again be a part of her future.
Drawing on a group of Arab-American, refugee women’s own experiences, Heather Raffo also uses also the experiences of her own father’s, Mosul family as she explores in her play, Noura, one woman’s struggles finding a balance between remembering, honoring, and continuing aspects of her past life and accepting, adjusting, and recreating a new life in a new land. The painful, sometimes all-encompassing struggles between letting go and moving on are daily, even hourly realities for the play’s forty-something, title character. Noura becomes an Every Woman representing the millions like her who have been ripped from her homeland and heritage with no hope of return. Marin Theatre Company in association with Golden Thread Productions presents the Bay Area premiere of Heather Raffo’s Noura in a one-act production (one hour, forty minutes) that even with well-placed pauses and moments of absolute silence, is fast-moving, gripping, and emotionally compelling.
Heather Raffo’s Noura is based loosely on Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House; but rather than Noura being imprisoned in the confines of the male-dominated society around her as is Ibsen’s Nora, Noura is locked inside her own world of mixed dreams and reality, stuck somewhere in a purgatory between her past and her present lives. Like in A Doll’s House, it is Christmas time as the play opens. And like in Ibsen, there is also much attention being given to presents; to a female guest who suddenly arrives bringing surprises; to a family friend who reveals heretofore unspoken love for Noura; and to a past act that was committed in love but that unexpectedly resurrects as a major disruption between her and her husband. However, where these similarities lead Ibsen’s Nora to a final and defining act of feminist liberation, the play’s final expression of Raffo’s Noura is much less clear, less satisfying, and yet perhaps much more the reality of many immigrant women who like her, find themselves unstable on the foreign soil they now reside.
Denmo Ibrahim is stage-commanding in the role of Noura, a woman who teeters between assertive confidence and desperate insecurity. Following the skills of her former profession, she has in her mind an architect’s plan of how she wants this Christmas to look and to be and goes about its preparation with a bold, bullish flair. But each time someone is either too early or too late in her planned schedule of arrivals, each time even the smallest detail like her son’s rolled dolmas do not match her pre-determined picture of perfection, or each time the reality that she has painted of how things should now be is not quite what she expects – like a guest’s surprise that reveals itself once she takes off her winter coat – those are the times a look of panic, a wave of anger, or an engulfing of disappointment overtake the entire being of Denmo Ibrahim’s Noura. And in those moments, her Noura often quickly escapes her now-uncomfortable surroundings to go outside to inhale a forbidden cigarette, to think aloud (for only us to hear), and to relish the delicious coolness of falling snow – the wintery aspect of her new life that was so foreign to her former home but from which she seems now to find much solace. But what she seems unable to escape is her own near-debilitating sense of loss in being one of the “millions and millions of people [who] are flooding out with nothing … leaving behind the beginning of time.” In her own words, “No wonder so many of us are drowning.” Throughout the play, Denmo Ibrahim captures that sense of a person gasping for life-saving air in an atmosphere that is increasingly – even after eight years – stifling to her sense of well-being.
In contrast, Mattico David as her husband Tareq appears on first glance to be fully at ease with his new life, home, and family. He nibbles at the neck of his wife, coaxing her to give him the one Christmas present he wants – a daughter, “an American baby,” teasing Nora, “one that smells like you and fights like you but has my sweet disposition.” Mattico David’s Tareq is in fact an easy-going charmer who lures us into believing he has fully assimilated as an ex-surgeon now working as an attendant in a local hospital’s emergency room. But his Tareq, like his wife, still has deep roots in his homeland that expose themselves in an explosion of moralities, judgments, and accusations that prove he has not himself yet let go of his past as much as he claims. Worse, he is quick to blame Noura – “You are always forcing me back there” – rather than truly owning his own ways of being stuck in that past.
Abraham Makany is the likable, even endearing Rafa’a who is best friend to both Noura and Tareq and is an annual part of their Christmas even though he is Muslim. He is particularly close and understands his childhood friend, Noura, perhaps even better than her husband. While he encourages her to “let it go,” he also admits to her, “You and I are from Mosul; we are wired to hang on.” But with that connection comes complications for the two of them, as his past silence opens up to reveal secrets.
Secrets also are multiply intertwined in the arrival of Maryam, a twenty-six-year-old Stanford student whom Noura has been the life-long, anonymous sponsor while Maryam grew up as an orphan in a Mosul nunnery. A Facebook search by Noura has led to this planned, first meeting. Maya Nazzal confidently and convincingly plays the young, recent immigrant. Her Maryam revels being fiercely independent as she daringly sets her own course in this new American life of hers. But both she and Noura have revelations to make that will send potentially destructive tremors into the still-developing foundation of their first face-to-face meetings.
Rounding out the talented cast of five is eleven-year-old Valentino Bertolucci Herrera who is in every way an all-American kid with a load of expressed cute, cuddly, and curious mannerisms that can quickly give way to his preference to run off to his room to play a video game. Unfortunately on opening night ,there were times when hearing all the words of his young, rather soft voice was difficult due to a director’s blocking where he (and others) were sometimes facing away from the audience. Hopefully, this can be corrected since the young actor is overall superb in his part.
Kate Bergstrom directs the Marin production with an eye to combining artfully the realities of the comings and goings in the family’s living room and the haunting dream/thought flashes that Noura experiences at the mention of some particular word or reference. Those surreal moments are marked by flashes, switches, and changes in lighting as part of Kate Boyd’s artistically fabulous designs for the evening and by music, whispers, and other effects of Nihan Yesil’s masterfully effective sound design. Adam Rigg’s set design frames the home’s main room with a massive, unfinished border that reflects the work-still-in-progress of Noura’s furnishing her home after eight years of residence. (Her husband is prone the mention “the couch” that has never been bought.) Anna Oliver’s designs of each person’s costumes helps round out the development and exposure of their unique personalities.
As compelling as this exploration is of an immigrant’s attempt to retain enough aspects of her past to make her present feel more like the home she wants, there are times when Heather Raffo’s Nourabegins to look, sound, and feel like an Arabic-American telenovela. The dramatic revelations of long-kept secrets, the emotionally explosive reactions, and the ellipsis-like ending that seems to call for a sequel (or for next week’s episode) sometimes become momentary distractions from the overall, quite effective and effecting script, direction, and acting.
That said, Marin Theatre Company’s Noura is a night of important theatre that could hardly be timelier, given the news of not only that past couple of years but even more so, the past couple of weeks. Audiences cannot help but walk away with new insights and new questions about the experiences of recent immigrants who have literally had to leave everything from a long past and flee for their very lives to a new, completely foreign land – a land where each must now figure out when and if it can become home.
Rating: 4 E
Noura continues in an extended run through February 9, 2020 in production by Marin Theatre Company and in association with Golden Thread Productions, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley. Tickets are available online at http://marintheatre.org/or by calling the box office at 415-388-5208, Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 5 p.m.
Photo Credits: Kevin Berne