In Minnesota we’re familiar with the intimacy of snow--the loud quiet it creates as it falls after dark. It’s in this moment of calm serenity that the Guthrie Theater audience meets Noura, escaping the bustle of Christmas Eve for one last cigarette. It’s visually stunning: the deep black of the proscenium curtain and the snow falling softly onto the stage. It transports us to New York City, the current home of Noura (Gamze Ceylan), Tareq (Fajer Kaisi), and their son Yazen (alternatingly Aarya Batchu and Akshay Krishna). This Iraqui immigrant family attempts to reconcile their fractured past with their American present. Director Taibi Magar places identity and culture at the center of Noura.
Playwright Heather Raffo speaks semi-autobiographically in this updated reimagining of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. In program notes she describes her memories of her grandfather’s church in his hometown of Mosul as well as the pain and anger she feels at the splintering of the Iraqui community. Titular character Noura, granted a newly minted US passport, lives with one foot in Mosul and the other in New York, her heart bleeding for the Iraqui refugees seeking asylum in America. At the play’s open Noura is preparing to host one of these refugees for Christmas: an orphan from Mosul who appears in need of a mother’s care. When her guest Maryam (Layan Elwazani), a Stanford physics student, shows up six months pregnant, Noura’s role as caretaker is tested. As she tries to prepare a traditional Iraqui holiday for her family, Noura grapples with her own identity as a wife, mother, Christian, friend, and immigrant, and the countless double-standards inherent in each.
Scenic Designer Matt Saunders -- who I thank for the picturesque snow -- embraces multilevel metaphor through his semi-permanent set; U-Haul boxes imprinted with the Statue of Liberty create the walls of Noura and Tareq’s home. Their small apartment projects transience -- boxes, open shelves -- it’s cluttered yet incomplete. Beyond the cardboard walls concrete barriers stretch to the heavens, creating the sense of a bomb shelter or blast protection wall. Reza Behjat’s lighting design further immerses the audience in Noura’s quandary as slanted light casts shadows on the cement walls, highlighting the symbolic prison that is any country not her homeland. Sauders’s set couples with designer Sinan Refik Zafar’s original music. We see and hear a cultural convergence on stage -- a christmas tree, an Iraqui melody, knick-knacks from two distinct worlds -- all tossed together in a naturally haphazard way.
The cast carries the weight of this show, creating a true family on stage. Noura, Tareq, and Yazen welcome family friend Rafa’a (Kal Naga) and Maryam for Christmas dinner. With hre house full of guests from her homeland Noura intimates her belief that family comes from being the only people that survived the same thing. Gamze Ceylan’s performance brings pensive honesty to the multilayered Noura who finds clear and evident joy in the chaos of the holiday. Ceylan lays bare the whirlwind of doubt Noura feels as she navigates a world and culture that expects a woman to be at once individualistic and incredibly community focused. Tareq (Fajer Kaisi) struggles with his own identity as husband and provider as he embraces becoming an American. Twenty-something Maryam (Layan Elwazani), by contrast, stands in self-absolution, freed from her past as an orphan and fully accountable for the choices she has made, including her pregnancy. Elwazani is a calming presence amid the chaos, her voice carrying a soft but resonant energy. Kal Naga as Rafa’a, the semi-outsider, is a sage of friendly advice and frank council.
Director Taibi Magar embraces the connection between Noura and Ibsen’s classic. In Raffo’s play the unsatisfied wife is focused not on her own freedom and growth but the freedom and growth of others; Tareq, attempts to help her remember herself. This tension culminates in a Christmas day argument between Noura and Tareq. A testament to both directing and writing, this argument has the familiarity of crucial conversations that spiral out of control, jumping from subject to subject, from pressure point to pressure point. It seems the characters forget what they’re even arguing about as shots fire and defenses raise; ultimately, both sides are wounded.
I wasn’t ready for this play to end. We crescendoed to a climax that left us at the cliff’s edge. This mirrors the lives of immigrants awaiting secured status - living on-edge, in limbo, with angst and tension for months on end. I applaud this production team and the artistic director for embracing this incompleteness as they bring new stories to the Guthrie stage. I appreciate the attempts to speak and design and perform from a place of empathy. At the performance I attended the entire play was performed with Arabic captioning and during the post-show talkback an audience member was able to pose a question in his native language to an actor who could answer him in kind. I can only hope to see more productions embracing culture as widely as Noura did in Minneapolis. Through this brief immersion, perhaps we as artists can practice seeing through the cultural signifiers and language barriers to the people and allow them to define their own identities.