Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
In Noura, currently playing in a Bay Area premiere at Marin Theatre Company in partnership with Golden Thread Productions, the title character (played with a startling combination of delicacy and fire by Denmo Ibrahim) has spent most of her life on a razor's edge. Or to be more accurate, on several razors' edges. A native of Mosul, Iraq, Noura is Chaldean, an Iraqi Catholic and part of a group whose members make up less than one percent of the population, and whose very existence is threatened by persecution from the terror group Daesh, known in the West as ISIS. When Daesh fighters invaded her hometown, Noura, along with her Muslim husband Tareq (Mattico David) and their young son Yazen (Valentino Herrera), fled, leaving everything behind to make a new life in New York City.
But after eight years in America, things are finally turning for Noura and her family. They have recently become naturalized citizens and proud possessors of United States passports, with their new names: Nora, Tim and Alex. Tareq/Tim, a surgeon back home in Iraq, no longer has to scrape by making sandwiches at Subway and instead works as an ER doctor. As the show opens, it is Christmas Eve, the symbolic edge that marks the moment just before the celebration of Noura's savior's birth. Noura has been baking and cooking for weeks, preparing for a feast that will include the family's friend Rafa (Abraham Makany), a doctor whom Noura is hoping to set up with Maryam (Maya Nazzal). Maryam is also a Chaldean Catholic, an orphan whom Noura has been sponsoring since she was an infant in the care of nuns, and paying her room and board at Stanford, where Maryam has come to study physics. She has also paid the airfare for Maryam to come to New York for Noura's Christmas feast. But when the girl shows up pregnant, unmarried, and not the least bit ashamed about it, a major wrench is thrown into Noura's plans. (As an architect, Noura is used to meticulous planning and seeing her designs perfectly executed).
Everyone in Noura seems to be caught between two worlds, carefully navigating the fine lines between tradition and modernity, movement and stasis (even after eight years in America, Noura and Tareq still don't have a couch), memory and forgetting, safety and danger. This balancing act provides much of the tension that pervades Heather Raffo's play. Noura doesn't want to forget all that happened to her all those years ago, however painful it was. But rather than dwell on the specific memories, she clings to her traditions (fasting on Christmas Eve, dolmas on Christmas Day) and her cigarettes, which she hides from her family, sneaking out into a snowstorm ("the loudest silence I have ever known") to enjoy her forbidden pleasure. Tareq/Tim and Yazen/Alex, on the other hand, seem happy to embrace their new life. Alex is hoping Christmas will bring him a PlayStation, and Tim has been planning a gift for Noura that will help bridge the chasm between her old life and her new: a hard drive that contains photos of every page of the books they left behind when they fled Mosul.
Though the set by Adam Rigg is rather bland and unappealing (especially as the home of an architect), the performers who inhabit the space seize your attention in such a way that you will barely notice their rather boring backdrop. Denmo Ibrahim, whom I first saw in the wonderful Baba, which she wrote in addition to performing, and later in Aurora Theatre's production of Splendour, only continues to grow as an artist. Her big, soulful eyes seem like portals to the inner lives of the characters she creates. She can wound with a baleful glare and just the slightest turn of her head, or fill you with the joy she feels when a character she loves enters the scene and her face spreads with a smile that opens.
Maya Nazzal's Maryam holds her own against Noura with a confident physicality, frustrating Noura's desires to maintain a sense of tradition. She upends Noura's life in ways that seem out of scaleat least until the last 15 minutes of the play reveal why Maryam's presence, and actions, are so upsetting. Makany and David play Rafa'a and (especially) Tareq almost as planets in Noura's orbitcaught in her gravitational pull, but understanding that without her they would find themselves adrift in an empty cosmos.
Noura is not a woman who likes surprises, butto an audience's delightplaywright Raffo and director Kate Bergstrom keep the tension of this quiet family drama taut to the point of cracking, and always on the edgewhere all the most interesting things happen.
Noura runs through February 2, 2020, at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Sundays at 7:30 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. There is an additional "Perspectives" matinee on Thursday, January 30, at 1:00 p.m. Tickets range from $25-$70. For tickets and information, please visit marintheatre.org, or call the box office at 415-388-5208.