Theater Review: “Noura”

Getting the short end of the professional, financial and social sticks is something women have become used to through the ages. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t chafed at those very bitter bits. Let’s face it, ladies, things have improved but we’re still fighting that battle today.

In the West Coast premiere of “Noura,” Playwright Heather Raffo (a graduate of the Old Globe/USD Shiley Graduate Theatre Program) takes that sorry situation and deepens the problem by making her main character an Iraqi refugee in Queens, New York, thus adding the challenges of fitting in and/or maintaining one’s culture to the mix.

“Noura,” directed by Johanna McKeon, plays through Oct. 20 at The Old Globe’s White Theatre.

Taking as inspiration Ibsen’s 19th-century classic “The Doll House” (in which unfulfilled wife Nora finally just up and leaves her husband), Raffo’s Noura is a trained architect and Iraqi Christian who escaped from Mosul eight years ago with her surgeon husband Tareq and young son Yazen.

But though Tareq seems to have adapted nicely to life in Queens, Noura still doesn’t feel at home, seemingly not cheered even by Christmas Eve, the arrival of their new American passports and being official Americans. But she has been cooking like a demon for guests she’s invited for the holiday.

One of them is old family friend Rafa’a, a Muslim Iraqi and an OBGYN; the other, Maryam, a young orphan from Mosul whom Noura helped to become a physicist. Maryam is in her first year of graduate school in California and – unlike Noura – seems perfectly comfortable in the U.S.

Meanwhile, Noura seems to be fighting her demons alone, and sometimes you will hear her thoughts, notably when she hops the wall for a smoke outside. Sometimes they will be in English, sometimes in Arabic.

But the others are fighting their own battles, and as each of the characters struggles with self and community identity, audience expectations will be upended. Nothing will turn out the way you expect, except perhaps the fact that Yazen will get the PlayStation he covets for Christmas.

This unusual play is promising and certainly thought-provoking, but is not well served by the staging in the White Theatre.

Andromache Chalfant’s set is Noura and Tareq’s kitchen – and includes a curiously upside-down Christmas tree hanging from the ceiling. Most of the time the characters are facing the north and west sides of the White’s in-the-round setup. I was lucky to be on the west side, and even I had trouble understanding all the dialogue, much of which goes by quickly and some of which is in a foreign language. Friends who sat on the other two sides told me they missed a lot of lines.

Still, the cast is excellent. Lameece Issaq has a tough assignment as Noura, whose interior struggles are monumental to the point that she sounds angry much of the time, often either yelling or nearly whispering. Noura is a difficult character to like, but Issaq portrays her expertly.

Mattico David’a Tareq is funny and rather charming until something happens that brings out his unattractive, fundamentalist side.

Fajer Kaisi’s Rafa’a is perhaps the most “normal” of the group, but even he harbors a secret or two.

Isra Elsalihie is excellent as Maryam, who has taken to the States and its individualist philosophy with no apologies and no reservations.

Giovanni Cozic is adorable as the utterly Americanized Yazen, loving what New York has to offer and too young to be hampered by assimilation concerns.

Kudos to lighting designer Driscoll Otto and sound designer Melanie Chen Cole for fine work, and to Dina El-Aziz for appropriate costumes.

There is much to think about here. Perhaps the cast could be miked or the blocking modified to give the audience a better chance to hear Raffo’s words.

The details

“Noura” plays through October 20, 2019 at The Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm

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