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REVIEW: Engaging Noura Belies Marketing (Guthrie Theater)

Gamze Ceylan (Noura) and Akshay Krishna (Yazen, alternate performances) in the Guthrie Theater’s production of Heather Raffo’s Noura. Photo by Dan Norman.

Some stories run too long in the telling, making you wish for a good editor’s or dramaturge’s pen. Others end naturally, like Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, where the only way that a sequel seems to fit is twenty years later. Noura, now playing at the Guthrie Theater’s McGuire Proscenium Stage in Minneapolis, is ripe for a second act.

This is not to say that the 90-minute tale isn’t a unit in itself: it’s an engaging, well-told tale enacted by a sharp cast, especially Gamze Ceylan in the title role. But it is also ends so abruptly – dare I say dramatically – that “What happens next?” is a burning question on your mind. Heather Raffo’s play premiered in 2018, so only time will tell if it gets a second-act or a sequel, but the story could certainly last another chapter.

If you read through the Guthrie’s and other theatres’ materials, much is made of how Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House inspired the workshops that led to Raffo writing Noura. It is interesting trivia, perhaps, but not at all necessary to enjoying this story. What does matter is that Raffo’s narrative is intimately bound up in the cultural and political dynamics that have chased the characters, a set of first-generation Iraqi-American immigrants, across the world and back.

Can you really get to know a stranger through emails, text messages, and social media? Maryam (Layan Elwazani) and Noura (Gamze Ceylan) finally meet in person. Photo by Dan Norman.

The setup of the play finds Noura (Gamze Ceylan) nervously awaiting the arrival of Christmas, which is set to bring with it her first meeting with Maryam (Layan Elwazani), an Iraqi orphan who she has been sponsoring but never met. Around this pair dance a nuclear family: Noura’s young son Yazen (alternately played by Aarya Batch and Akshay Krishna), Noura’s husband Tareq (Fajer Kaisi), and their long-time family friend Rafa’a (Kal Naga). It’s an engaging cast of characters, even before the first of many surprises drops.

A pivotal element in A Doll’s House is that a major secret from Nora’s past threatens to catch up with her. In Noura, far more of the characters have large, pregnant secrets, which come rolling out in unguarded moments. This unfolds against a backdrop of such vivid descriptions of Iraqi food that, when combined with the odes to sandwiches in last year’s Floyd’s, makes you wonder about the catering during the Guthrie’s season-planning meetings. It’s not a show to see on an empty stomach, especially because it runs 90 minutes with no intermission.

The script, rendered with naturalistic dialogue, includes several poignant and memorable monologues. (Taibi Magar’s direction follows this naturalistic direction, with a few dizzying moments driven by Sinan Refik Zafar’s sound design.) Of special note is Rafa’a’s kitchen reveal, delivered by Kal Naga in a performance of equal parts allure and dam-bursting poignancy. This is far from the only soul-baring moment with major consequences, but it sets up the avalanche that brings the play to a close.

Guess who’s stressed about dinner? Noura (Gamze Ceylan), Yazen (Aarya Batchu, playing the character in alternate performances), and Tareq (Fajer Kaisi) discuss their impending Christmas feast. Photo by Dan Norman.

The Iraqi-American refugee experience is a key aspect of this play. (Raffo is of Iraqi and American heritage, and the play was written out of workshops with Iraqi-American refugees.) Many aspects of this come to the surface, including Matt Saunders’ scenic design that juxtaposes walls of packing boxes and bare concrete. One of the play’s messages is that where you come from and what you have to leave behind change you, often in ways that can’t be seen. That is where also where leaves you, wondering: when your new life has been figuratively blown apart, what happens next?

Noura plays at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, MN through February 16.

Basil Considine