Noura written by Heather Raffo is inspired by A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, but stands on it’s own as a dynamic and moving work that explores the question of identity. The Guthrie Theater has assembled a brilliant cast that brings a complex and dramatic script to life. I’m going to dispense with the Ibsen comparison right away. If you’re familiar with A Doll’s House, you will see the connections that exist. If you’re not, it will not hamper your enjoyment one bit. If I hadn’t recently seen A Doll’s House and known that there was a link, I doubt if I’d even have made the connection. It’s obvious when you are very familiar with Ibsen’s play, but this is not a modern retelling. Noura is it’s own story, it shares a structure and some character motivations with the original, but it has its own soul.
Noura and her husband Tareq and son Yazen have spent the last 8 years since fleeing Iraq becoming United States citizens. They have changed their names to Nora, Tim and Alex, a change that Noura is not as excited about as the males in the family. It’s Christmas Eve and they are getting ready for the holiday, preparing traditional Iraqi foods, and wrapping presents. They expect two guests for Christmas dinner Maryam, an orphan from Iraq who Noura has sponsored but never met, and their childhood friend Rafa’a, a Doctor. Both stop over on Christmas Eve and reveal something to Noura which she did not expect. Those secrets and what they represent bring to the forefront other hidden feelings and details from the past. Noura struggles with the difference between how she grew up, surrounded by family and neighbors and how things are in America, which is more about the individual and less about the community. Her husband is more comfortable with the American lifestyle and wants his family to stop looking back and to move forward as Americans. But as secrets are revealed, we see that in many ways he too is stuck in the past. There are so many ideas at play in the work, from gender roles, the loss of culture and assimilation of another, to the nature of human sexuality and it’s differences between cultures. Noura is a women struggling to determine what she wants and how to move forward. We see that from the beginning and as more and more is piled onto her, the way forward becomes more and more paradoxical.
Noura is played by Gamze Ceylan. Noura could be played, by a lesser actor, as a bundle of contradictions. Noura wants different things and they are not always compatible. Ceylan somehow always makes it clear to us that she understands the disconnect and we understand her motivations within a given moment. She’s not a string of random acts, it all comes from her character. Ceylan clearly has an understanding of that character and so she feels real to us. Whether she is being a loving mother to Yazen or having a devastatingly candide argument with Tareq, she is absolutely in the moment, a truly mesmerizing performance. Tareq as played by Fajer Kaisi is a much more dimensional character than Torvald is in Ibsen’s play. He is not the domineering and controlling master of the house, but her partner. Kaisi shines when he revealed his long held secret thoughts, they are ugly and hypocritical and also painfully human. Kaisi expertly shows us the ugly side of his character while still letting us see that he is a man, with good and bad in him, not a villain. Layan Elwazani who plays Maryam, and Kal Naga who plays Rafa’a are both excellent in their roles. They are a contrast to Noura and Tareq, they seem to know who they are and what they want. They’ve both moved on from their pasts and don’t feel the push and pull that Noura does. Yazen is played on alternating nights by Aarya Batchu and Akshay Krishna, I believe I saw Krishna on the night I attended. I was taken with how natural he seemed as a member of this family, his interactions with the others seemed comfortable. It’s impressive for such a young actor to achieve that level of naturalness on stage.
Taibi Magar’s direction must be credited for making an evening of theater so filled with big ideas, difficult concepts, some truly horrifying realities such a pleasure. I recently saw a production that dealt with some similarly heavy themes and material and it was a chore to sit through and think about. This show engaged the audience so that the darker moments were more keenly felt rather than simply putting the audience off. There are difficult themes and subject matter in this play but it is never difficult to watch. I don’t know when I was this engaged to the point where I wasn’t watching actors read lines but people communicating with each other. That indicates a sure hand at the wheel guiding the actors and pacing the action perfectly. You’d think after years of attending the Guthrie I’d stop being amazed by their sets, but I always am. Matt Saunders Scenic design and Reza Behjat’s Lighting Design combine to create a space that represents not just an apartment, but also the block it’s located on. It’s on a scale which places the action within the apartment into a larger world. The Uhaul boxes that make up the walls of their apartment symbolizing that Noura has still not fully unpacked in America, a part of her is still in Iraq.
Noura is theater of ideas made concrete and real by the contradictions within the characters. Those contradictions reflect our own uncertainties in life. This is must attend theater, it is engaging, thought provoking and moving. Noura is brought into existence by an excellent cast lead by Gamze Ceylan and Fajer Kaisi. The play runs through Feb 16th for more information and tickets go to https://www.guthrietheater.org/ .