It’s not too often we get to see something new at the Shakespeare Theatre. Not just plays that are brand-spanking new, but modern ones. There will be one every few years or so, but the company likes to lean on Shakespeare, shows from a slightly later era that may have been rewritten, or “modern” (meaning things written before I was born). This isn’t a bad thing, but it does have a tendency to lean heavily on white male writers. This year, though, we got to experience something a little different, and something that was very cool.
As part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival in DC, the STC is presenting the premiere of a play by Heather Raffo, who is herself an Iraqi-American, called “Noura”. Raffo also stars as the title character, who is apparently a modern immigrant reinterpretation of Nora from Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”. Since I haven’t read or seen that show since I was in high school, I’m trusting the various pieces and reviews I’ve seen that tie these two shows together.
Our Noura is a newly minted American, her family having received their citizenships recently after coming to the United States as a refugees 8 years prior. She is an architect, but it seems she has let her credentials lapse as she does not work. Her husband – Tareq – is an ER doctor who is loving and devoted to his family. They have a teenage son (Yazen, or Alex) who seems to have adjusted to life in America the most quickly. A long-time family friend of Noura’s – Rafa’a – is also part of the family who gathers, along with a young Iraqi-refugee college student (Maryam) that Noura and Tareq are sponsoring. This small group is our entire ensemble, and they are gathering for Christmas (as Noura and family are Christians) at the beautiful apartment in which our central family lives.
I hate to talk too much about the plot, because there are lots of surprises in store for anyone who sees the show. But the whole things is beautifully done. As mentioned above, the set for the show is a lovely apartment in New York and it is open and fascinatingly made, the way you would imagine the home of a modern architect would be. You’d think that a large and minimalist room like this would feel cold and the opposite of homey. Instead, the room is scattered with the detritus of family life, and Christmas things on top of that. It looks like the kind of set you want to just walk into and explore, because you’re sure that the set designers/decorators have put in more tiny details than any audience member would ever be able to see.
On top of that, the cast is exceptional. With such a small ensemble, you are limited in how unbalanced the talent can be before any one performance becomes noticeable in any regard. But this group – they gel. The family of Noura, Tareq and Yazen seem very at home with each other, which is both ideal and necessary when casting a family group. On top of that, the relationship between Noura and Tareq feels so natural and long-standing in the way that they interact with each other. You are rooting for them and any and all issues they may face together. Young Maryam is empathetically portrayed so that you want for her to succeed, the problems that she’s facing seem like ones she is able to overcome, and you hope against hope that it will all be ok. You look at Rafa’a, and wish to have a friend as good as him in your life, even with the complications that he brings to the table.
I’m not sure how many good things I can say about it. On top of all that, it’s also about 90 minutes long, which is a completely manageable amount of time to be sitting in down when you are 9 months pregnant and very uncomfortable. My only qualm with the show is that the ending is abrupt and I felt like it could have used more closure, but the Boy thought it worked really well, and showed how answers and solutions to the problems we face in life aren’t easy, and how it would take more time to solve the issues the show reveals than we would have time to watch as an audience.
So yes – an amazing play by a terrific female playwright, who also happens to be non-Caucasian, checking off a lot of diversity boxes that are needed in theater. Especially in a prestigious venue and organization like the Shakespeare Theatre here in DC. This is a show I have no hesitance in recommending. It is worth every minute of your time, and you’ll wish there were more.
Details: Noura by Heather Raffo, at the Shakespeare Theater‘s Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW, through March 11.