Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Guthrie Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Bernarda Alba and A Doll's House, Part 2

Fajer Kaisi and Gamze Ceylan
Photo by Dan Norman
Astute theatergoers in the Twin Cities are aware of the attention being paid to two high profile productions opening last weekend, both area premieres of recent plays that riff off of Henrik Ibsen's 1879 play A Doll's House. One of those, Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House, Part 2 at Jungle Theatre, speculates on what might have happened if Nora Helmer returned to settle unfinished business with the husband she famously walked out on fifteen years before.

The other, Heather Raffo's Noura, alters the spelling of the lead character's name to represent her Iraqi heritage, and changes the setting from 1879 in Oslo to 2016 in New York City. Noura is now at the Guthrie's McGuire Proscenium Stage. It is well worth seeing, foremost, as a strongly crafted play that is never predictable, for its strong performances by actors not before seen on Twin Cities stages, and finally, as another case of Ibsen's landmark work providing footing for a playwright to address the continuously evolving state of relationships between the sexes.

Unlike Ibsen's Nora, this Noura is no obliging little titmouse of a wife. She is a modern woman, quite comfortable voicing her feelings and claiming her role as an equal partner in her marriage to Tareq. Eight years ago, Noura, Tareq, and their son Yazen arrived in New York after fleeing their home in Mosul, Iraq, where their families lived for generations as part of that city's large Christian enclave until worsening growing ISIS attacks made it impossible for that ancient community to remain. In Iraq, Noura was an architect and Tareq a surgeon, but she has yet to obtain an architecture license in America, and hand tremors Tareq acquired make him unable to practice surgery. Still, they've made strides in their new country, and Noura and Tareq have just been granted U.S. citizenship. Noura's friend since childhood Rafa'a, who also left Mosul, is a frequent presence in their home, like an uncle to Yazen, sharing so much of their lives, with one notable difference: he is Muslim.

Christmas Eve is approaching, with Noura especially determined to maintain the elaborate Iraqi customs that mark their unique cultural heritage. Yazen—called Alex in America—is a typical tween boy, excited about presents, treats, and the video games his parents try to restrict, with little interest in old traditions, at one point complaining, "Mom, can't you be more American for once?" This year their celebration is twofold, because they will be joined by Maryam, an orphan raised by the nuns in Mosul whom they had never met, but Noura has supported her as a sponsor since infancy. Maryam, now a young woman, is attending college at Stanford and is coming to New York for Christmas break, where she will at last be in the embrace of her unofficial family.

Noura becomes increasingly anxious over having everything be perfect for the holiday, all the while feeling torn between the daunting task of keeping alive the light of a community that is close to fully evaporated, and Tareq's insistence that she embrace all the good their new life affords them, including its creature comforts. Noura's biggest concern is for Maryam to feel fully at home with them. When Maryam arrives, catching Noura off guard, she is not what Noura expected. Not in her demeanor, her emotional needs, nor her physical condition.

Noura's distress pushes her and Tareq to discover long concealed gaps in their understanding of one another. Noura's agonizing is not as single-focused as Nora Helmer's. Noura contends with how the weight of their past lives, including concealed deeds and feelings, now inflicts cracks in the foundation of her marriage. It is as if there are four different people to parse together: Noura in Mosul, Tareq in Mosul, Noura in New York, and Tareq in New York, each asserting their vision of moving forward. If her resolution is less definitive than was Nora Helmer's, in part that reflects the wider universe of choices.

Raffo, who is Iraqi-American, crafts a narrative that continues to spiral with layers of complexity to Noura's deeply conflicted feelings, and to present the multiple perspectives she, Tareq, Rafa'a and Maryam hold regarding how to bridge their past, present and future. Even young Yazen makes a case, implicitly, as a preview of their lineage turned fully assimilated first-generation American. Raffo fortifies her strong construction with authentic dialogue, often funny, but just as often gripping in capturing both the affection and the strife of conversations between intimates.

New York based director Taibi Magar is Egyptian-American, which likely provides her with keen insights into these concerns. She keeps the ninety-minute play moving seamlessly, ever raising the heat on the complexity of the issues surfacing, and draws out performances that create authentic relationships among the five characters.

Gamze Ceylan is stunning as Noura, contending with a maelstrom of emotions, expressing uncertainties of herself and her husband, striking out with inflamed indignation and retreating into despair. Early on it feels as if Fajer Kaisi's portrayal of Tareq is being played with less weight, more playful, but as the tensions rise and Tareq more boldly expresses himself, Kaisi inserts more fire into the performance.

Layan Elwazani if excellent as Maryam. The role does not call on her to play Maryam as a lovable orphan from the developing world, but as a bright, free-thinking young woman who easily fits in at a hip college town coffee shop. At the same time, Elwazani delivers the bitter streak that is one of Maryam's drivers. There is less color to the role of Rafa'a, a good, trustworthy man, faithful friend, but Kal Naga depicts these admirable qualities well, also bringing heat to his occasion to address the Islamophobia he faces as part of daily life. Two actors rotate in the role of Yazen. We saw Aarya Batchu, in a solid performance as a basically good boy, questioning some of the boundaries placed on him by virtue of age as well as cultural traditions.

Matt Saunders' set design reinforces the play's themes, with apartment walls constructed of U-Haul moving boxes noting the family's untethered state even after eight years, as do the spartan kitchen unit and dining table. A large, fully decorated Christmas tree suggests a bridge between homeland and new land traditions. Several piles of rocks on the stage apron, visible before the black proscenium curtain is raised, serve as outdoor seating for Noura's clandestine cigarette breaks, her legs curled under herself on a structure even more ancient than the homeland for which she mourns.

Dina El-Aziz offers suitable costumes, stylish with a nod to her homeland designs for Noura to wear. A costume for Yazen to wear for a church nativity pageant is wonderfully transformed by Noura from the one issued by their church that, she protests, looks like a Disney version of the Magi to one that reflects what she knows as the truth. Reza Behjat's lighting design adds emotional nuance to shifting levels of conflict within Noura's own mind, as well as between her and Tareq, and Sinan Refik Zafar's original music nicely enhances the show.

Noura is part of a series of plays offered by the Guthrie this season dealing with the Arab and Arab-American experiences, including last fall's Zafira and the Resistance and two upcoming short runs in the Dowling Studio, Grey Rock and Jogging. It is an extremely worthy effort, bringing the work of Arab-American theater artists to the fore, and casting light on a community that has for too long received scant attention. Noura deserves to be seen for its artistic merits, for its entertainment value, and certainly for what it contributes to that growing insights and sensibilities the extra challenges placed on those who straddle different pools that comprise the broad ocean of our nation's diversity.

Noura continues at the Guthrie Theater's McGuire Proscenium Stage through February 16, 2020. 818 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets are $25.00 to $79.00. Seniors (65+) and Full-time college students - $3.00 - $6.00 per ticket discount. Active Military, veterans and their immediate families,15% discount. Public Rush line for unsold seats 15 - 30 minutes before performance, $20.00 - $25.00, cash or check only. For tickets call 612-377-2224 or go to

Playwright: Heather Raffo; Director: Taibi Magar; Set Design: Matt Saunders; Costume Design: Dina Al-Ariz; Lighting Design: Reza Behjat; Sound Design/Composer: Sinan Refik Zafar; Resident Dramaturg: Carla Steen; Resident Voice and Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Resident Fight Director: Aaron Preusee; Resident Casting Director: Jennifer Liestman; NYC Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.; Cultural Consultant: Shaymaa Hasan; Stage Manager: Katie Hawkinson; Assistant Director: Taous Claire Khazem; Assistant Stage Manager: Olivia Louis Tree Path; Design Assistants: Lisa Jones (costumes), Ryan Connealy (lighting), C. Andrew Mayer (sound).

Cast: Aarya Batchu (* Yazen), Gamze Ceylan (Noura), Layan Elwazani (Maryam), Fajer Kaisi (Tareq), Akshay Krishna (* Yazen), Kal Naga (Rafa'a).