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BWW Review: NOURA at Shakespeare Theatre Company

BWW Review: NOURA at Shakespeare Theatre Company

Shakespeare Theatre Company's (STC) entry into the Women's Voices Theater Festival is a rather unexpected and unique one. Heather Raffo gives voice to a newly-minted citizen and her family who fled Mosul, Iraq almost a decade earlier in her challenging play, Noura. Shades of Ibsen's A Doll's House are present in her script (not to be spoiled here) and this is perhaps a hook for a classics-oriented theater like STC. While Raffo is concerned with the question of the role of the woman in the home and the marriage, her play is more than a modern take on Ibsen's tale with a Middle Eastern heritage bent. Likewise, although she's concerned with the plight of the refugee - a most relevant point of discussion today - her lens for analysis is much narrower and far less political than one might expect even though she touches on the impact of prejudice. Noura's (Heather Raffo herself) identity and perspective on the world, her family, and her hidden past is very much influenced by her experience as a refugee, but other factors are at play, least of which are gender, religion, and cultural heritage. The same can be said for other characters in the play, including Maryam (Dahlia Azama) - the young refugee study at Stanford University who Noura invites into her home to celebrate Christmas - and Yazen/Alex (Gabriel Brumberg), Noura and Tareq/Tim's (Nabil Elouahabi) young son, raised very much American. (As explained in the play, the family changed their names during the process to become citizens to something more "American.")

While Raffo proves adept at weaving all of these complex elements of identity into her story about a family and friends (both old and new) gathering together on Christmas Eve and Day in New York City, the script does have one or two fundamental weaknesses. At only ninety minutes in length, it takes a bit too long to get going dramatically although the wait is, to some extent, worth the payoff when deeply held secrets and feelings are finally exposed. Additionally, although I appreciated her attempt to write a layered play and her overall easy and natural writing style, I struggled with understanding what she really wanted her play to be and what she wanted to say. At some point, you have to balance a desire to write a multi-faceted play (with mostly multi-faceted characters) and the need to maintain dramatic focus.

Strong direction by Joanna Settle, a mostly strong cast, and wonderful production elements allow the audience to get the most out of the theatergoing experience. While Elouahabi is a bit wooden, as is Matthew David (playing family friend Rafa'a), the acting talent is mostly first rate. Brumberg has a natural presence that defies his young age. Raffo expertly deals with her character's emotional state, careful to never cross into that dreaded overwrought territory. Azama makes the strongest impression from the moment she enters the stage and is inherently believable in every possible way. The interactions between her and Raffo - some of the most important in the play - are among the most satisfying. On the technical end, Andrew Lieberman's minimalistic and open scenic design allows extensive unconfined movement of the actors and contributes to the idea that the present situation in which the characters find themselves doesn't exist in a vacuum. They maintain open links to other periods of time and geographic locations. Boundaries simply don't exist. Tilly Grimes' costumes and Obadiah Eaves' sound design are important to understanding the way the characters think about their own cultural identity in America.

While I personally thought Danai Gurira was more successful in dealing with complex issues of identity in her play Familiar (Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's entry into the aforementioned festival), I would still recommend this play to audiences desiring something really unique. I hope Ms. Raffo, who impressed me in her play Nine Parts of Desire, continues to work on this play and make it even better. There's definitely a good foundation from which to build.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission

NOURA plays at Shakespeare Theatre Company's Lansburgh Theatre - 450 7th St, NW in Washington, DC - through March 11, 2018. For tickets, call the box office at 202-547-1122 or purchase them online.

Photo: Dahlia Azam and Heather Raffo pictured; by Scott Suchman

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From This Author Jennifer Perry

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