Noura at Playwrights Horizon is a play written by and starring Heather Raffo. The story premise is that the characters are all Iraqi immigrants. Unlike most genres of this type, all the people in this story are successful. The husband and long time friend are both doctors. Noura herself is an architect. Noura's husband begs her for a daughter (they have a son), but she doesn't want one, and we find out at the end of the play why.
The problem with Noura are many, but the main reason that it never resonates with the audience is that Heather Raffo never goes deep enough in this play. Raffo only scratches the surfaces, the many subject surfaces, but never gives us any meat to the story. Much of the writing, in fact, is conflicted. Is she happy here in America or not? Does she want to go back to Mosul or not? Is she at peace with her life, or is she just plain angry about being displaced from Iraq?
As people who were made citizens eight years ago, Noura seems like the only person that is unhappy with her life. Her thought aloud questions go unanswered. She tries to ask deep questions to her husband and friend, but they are never resonating to the audience. As a result, the actors go through the motions and we never feel their pain or concerns. The audience only understands that they are Christian refugees that had to escape persecution over religious beliefs. Raffo touches on this but only lightly. Where she tries to make the audience believe how passionate she is toward her family, the fallen Iraq and its Christian people, she falls flat on emotion. Much of the problem throughout the night is not just the writing, but the direction of JoAnna Settle. Settle never has the audience interested in these people. The immigrant who is invited to visit for Christmas, Maryam, comes all the way from Stanford University to meet the women who freed her from Iraq. Unemotional, lightly controversial, we do not get any moving emotion from her.
If Heather Raffo touched on only a few subjects and drove those points deep into the play, it would have been much better. Instead, Raffo gives us many different subjects and spends little time on each one. The scenic design, while it is well done, makes no sense because Noura is a traditionalist and the home is very modern. The costumes are really good, however. Tilly Grimes captures the wardrobe very well in this play. Some of the actors are good as well, but nothing works in unison in Noura. Nothing makes sense, nothing comes together. To have this show intermission-less was a mistake. Raffo goes on about things and she loses the audience an hour in, leaving audience members during the last thirty minutes languishing in their seats.
The subject matter of this play is interesting. With what has gone on in the Middle East over the last twenty or so years is interesting in and of itself. This particular matter, one that is not often spoken about—Christians in the Middle East and what is happening to them, how many are displaced and tortured—is a subject that should be written about. If Raffo wrote on that alone it could have been great. If she only wrote about how she missed her homeland and went back in time of years past, it could have been resonant. Another angle of this play could have been how her American son was different from the customs and ways of where she and her husband came from, other than bringing up his Nintendo game and his attending Church in traditional Iraqi garb. Any of these subjects would have made the play a lot better for the audience to watch and enjoy.
In theater today, we have many writers who try to stretch the audience's imagination, whether it is the #metoo movement, gay marriage, and many of the other newsworthy and talked about events of our time. Unfortunately, much of the writing is both superficial and superfluous and does not go deep enough. Many of the theater companies today try to churn out plays, rather than turning out good, deep, well-written plays. Noura is a bi-product of theater that we are seeing today... all flash, no substance. Raffo could be at the forefront of Mid-East drama. Instead she wallows in mediocrity with Noura. Better direction could have helped this play a little, but the essence of this play is that it was never focused. It never stayed the course on any subject matter and faded into a non memorable play.