“In letting go of the burden of silence, you open a door. Or maybe you close a door. Either way it’s a place from which you never return.”
It’s a riff on what must be the most famous door slam in Western theater: the end of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, when Nora Helmer, bitterly betrayed by her husband, Torvald, walks out and slams the door behind her; we’ll never know whether she returns. But Noura, the heroine of Heather Raffo’s Noura (Raffo also plays the title role and her longtime collaborator Joanna Settle directs), is already on the other side of that door when the play begins. She and her family–her husband, Tareq (Nabil Elouahabi), and son, Yazen (Liam Campora)–left their old life together, and every day makes it clearer that there is no possibility of return. Eight years ago, they fled Mosul, coming to the United States as Iraqi Christian refugees, giving up Noura’s career as an architect and Tareq’s as a surgeon, starting over with nothing.
Now, they’re celebrating their first Christmas as newly minted American citizens: brand-new passports, brand-new American names (Nora, Tim, and Alex), and Tareq recertified to practice medicine. It should be a new door opening, a new beginning for them all. But while Tareq and Yazen seem to embrace the possibilities, Noura has a more conflicted relationship with the community and the home they lost–and with what she fears America is becoming. She can’t find her footing, or truly figure out what her life means now–partly because she’s mourning, privately, different losses than her husband and son. (The gifts the family exchanges and the physical layout of the space speak poignantly of their suspension in time and place: Noura, no longer a practicing architect, designs blueprints for the impossible dream house that would reunite Tareq’s far-flung family; Tareq and Yazen procure digital images of the entire contents of the library they left behind when they fled Iraq. But even here, Noura’s gift positions her husband facing the future, even if an unlikely dream of one; Tareq’s gift for his wife looks backward. Too, Andrew Lieberman’s set and Joanna Settle’s staging show their unsettled state: the furnishings are sparse–the script remarks on the fact they don’t have a couch–and other than when they’re eating, no one ever seems to find a place of physical comfort, perching on tables and shelves and hovering near the giant Christmas tree that anchors the set.)
In a program essay, Raffo describes the play as sparked by her own aggravation in relation to A Doll’s House, with its central couple whose relationship seems built on lies and attempts to protect their reputation from the consequences of their dishonesty; Nora and Torvald seem to have no real bond to each other or, certainly, to their children. Yet the deep irony of Noura is that, despite Noura and Tareq’s committed, loving twenty-year marriage, despite her career and her strong relationship with her son, and despite their best efforts to fuse the remnants of their old life with the new, Noura still can’t find a place in the world to be free of shame and of secrets, and where other people’s ideas of her don’t shape her identity. Her new life is physically safer than the old, but doesn’t allow her to find a sense of self, let alone a sense of peace. (It is implied that she was happier, less conflicted, in her home community, but over the course of the play, we realize that not all her burdens were born in America.) She smokes, alone, in the snow, as her private, defiant act of self-expression, and she throws herself into designing the perfect Christmas for a guest who wants little of the mothering/smothering affection Noura tries to give her.
That guest, Maryam (Dahlia Azama), is another Iraqi refugee, an orphan raised in the Mosul convent run by Noura’s now-murdered aunt. Noura had sponsored Maryam for a student visa and is meeting in her person for the first time. But she is nothing like Noura imagined her: instead, she’s distant, independent, a brilliant scientist–and six months pregnant. (Azama gives her a cheerful bemusement at Noura’s treating her like a loved, long-lost family member; they’re strangers and she’s not going to pretend otherwise.) And although, as their old friend Rafa’a (Matthew David) notes, “Welcoming into your home a pregnant woman who has no place else to go” is about as Christmassy as it gets, Maryam’s pregnancy–along with the news that she has no interest in marrying the baby’s father, or any of the other Iraqi suitors Noura has been researching–brings out both Noura and Tareq’s most judgmental impulses and sparks a series of revelations of bitter, long-buried truths, from Rafa’a as well as Noura and Tareq. That burden of silence may be lifted, but it’s bringing new burdens of grief, shame, and contempt in its wake.
That letting go of silence can feel a little too total, too abrupt. Maryam’s arrival is the trigger, true, but once the bottle is uncorked, everything they’ve been suppressing seems to come very fast. Sometimes, there’s more power in not quite getting things all the way out; in feeling the gap between what they can say and what they still can’t. There are some devastating revelations here–you could almost feel the audience physically recoil once or twice–but not a lot of subtext.
Grappling with their pasts also often brings out these characters’ worst sides (other than Yazen, whose simple delight in playing games with Maryam is the most uncomplicated happiness in the play): it’s another reminder that holiday joy lives more in the cultural imagination than in anyone’s actual lives. Noura is trying to mask her own restlessness by creating an ideal Christmas for Maryam and an idealized family that includes her. Maryam, understandably prickly at being expected to show love and gratitude to these strangers, makes it clear how little she needs them and seems to delight in reminding them in unvarnished examples how hard her childhood was. Tareq either refuses to see Noura’s unsettled emotions or viciously judges her when she confronts him with long-buried secrets. (Elouahabi gives these scenes a calm reasonableness that makes his ideas all the more stinging.) Rafa’a chooses a moment when Noura is already visibly struggling to confess his own hidden emotions. (Like the Dr. Rank character in Ibsen, Rafa’a’s role feels a little over-engineered, and the play doesn’t really know what to do with his confession other than meet it with preternatural calm and move on. Still, Rafaa’s measured acceptance of Maryam is a welcome corrective.)
Raffo is a luminous performer; we feel every thought that crosses Noura’s mind, and Raffo has the flexibility and complexity to make Noura both abrasive and vulnerable, and her struggle both frustrating and moving. “I don’t know how to let go and hold on,” she finally says–and it’s equally true about her struggle for selfhood as her relationship with her past. The others around her, even Maryam, are taking action to find their place in this new world, often by severing their ties to the past, by embracing American individualism. Only Noura, trying to find the courage to move ahead, can’t seem to balance her past with her present, her self with her family, her strength with her shame.