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Noura Hosts an Iraqi Christmas and Santa Delivers a Bundle of Family Secrets

Heather Raffo's modern riff on A Doll's House shows that you can't just slam the door on your past.

Liam Campora and Heather Raffo star in Raffo's Noura, directed by Joanna Settle, at Playwrights Horizons.
(© Joan Marcus)

This is a momentous Christmas for Noura's family: After eight years in the United States, these Iraqi Christian refugees have finally become American citizens. Three newly printed blue passports have arrived like early presents to their New York apartment, the center of which is occupied by a massive Christmas tree. But will the legal designation of citizenship necessarily change who they are? Heather Raffo asks this and about a hundred other deeply probing question in her new play, Noura, which is loosely inspired by Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. Now receiving a darkly evocative production from director Joanna Settle at Playwrights Horizons, the occasionally too-wordy drama is likely to leave audiences with deeply unsettled feelings about everything — just in time for the holidays!

Originally from Mosul, Noura (Raffo) actually appears as "Nora" in her new passport. Her husband, Tareq (Nabil Elouahabi), is "Tim," and their son, Yazen (Liam Campora), is "Alex." Their new names may sound American, but Noura fully intends to celebrate Christmas the Moslawi way, fasting until after midnight Mass, and then breaking that fast with pacha (a dish of boiled sheep parts that Yazen deeply resents). Noura has been preparing her Christmas feast for weeks in expectation of special guests: Rafa'a (Matthew David) is a Muslim obstetrician who has been celebrating Christmas with Nora since they were children back in Iraq, when such interfaith exchanges were still common. Maryam (a self-possessed Dahlia Azama) is a Christian orphan who was raised in a convent, only to see her mother superior murdered by Islamic State. Noura and Tareq sponsored her student visa to Stanford, and she's joining them in New York for her first Christmas in the States.

But as Noura struggles to hold on to the old ways, Maryam has dived headfirst into a new life: Not only has the physics student accepted an internship with the Department of Defense, but she's six months pregnant. It's a planned pregnancy, and she is quite determined to raise her child as a single mother. While Noura frets about what her conservative husband will think, Rafa'a is more optimistic: "I can't think of anything more Christmassy," he says, "welcoming into your home a pregnant woman who has no place to go."

Dahlia Azama, Nabil Elouahabi, Heather Raffo, Liam Campora, and Matthew David star in Noura.
(© Joan Marcus)

The truth of the relationship between these characters is only revealed by the end — and even then, we're not sure we fully grasp every detail. We attempt to piece it all together from what we pick up through guarded exchanges and furtive glances. In both her writing and performance, Raffo harnesses the expressive power of the unsaid.

Unfortunately, certain choices undermine that enthralling silence, like the superfluous internal monologue that runs through Obadiah Eaves's sound design whenever Noura is alone. Raffo's wordless performance in these moments of solitude says enough. Like her namesake Nora Helmer, Noura unleashes a whirlwind of words in the final scene. But unlike Nora's cold certainty, Noura unloads a veritable therapy session on her contradictory impulses. It feels overwritten, and it saps the piece of dramatic tension precisely when it needs it the most.

Settle's forced blocking for this final scene betrays that, as Raffo paces around the entire perimeter of the stage before climbing onto the table (just to step down a minute later). Up until that scene, Settle delivers the kind of taut production that keeps you leaning forward in anticipation. The porous semicircular upstage wall of Andrew Lieberman's set feels open while also creating space to hide. Masha Tsimring's mellow after-midnight lighting and Eaves's light underscoring of Arabic Christmas music create an atmosphere that is both beautiful and melancholy.

Heather Raffo plays Noura, and Nabil Elouahabi plays Tareq in Noura.
(© Joan Marcus)

All of our characters seem to be suffering from seasonal depression, but they cope in different ways. Elouahabi's Tareq powers through with exuberant determination: He's American and there's no looking back, because the Mosul that he knew no longer actually exists. With a pleasant half-smile, David's Rafa'a gets exactly as close as he can to people who remind him of home, before retreating in self-preservation. As Noura, Raffo comes the closest to actually articulating her complicated feelings: "I don't know how to let go and hold on at the same—" She stops herself before completing the sentence.

Noura is a messier play than A Doll's House, but in many ways, it's a more honest one. Raffo points out what every immigrant will tell you: Leaving is just the first step in a long journey.

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