This is a family drama that takes place in one room over the course of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The family — dad, mom, and 11-year-old son — are Iraqi immigrants living in Queens. Tareq is a surgeon who, after working for years at a Subway, is finally working as a doctor — although not as a surgeon. His hands shake now, perhaps because of post-traumatic stress disorder. Noura is an architect, the descendent of the builders of the great churches of their hometown of Mosul. She isn’t practicing architecture anymore. She refuses even to buy furniture or decorate their apartment.
But, in secret, Noura works on the design for a housing compound that would allow her husband to bring all of his sisters and their families back together, living under one roof. Its current design is hacienda-style: each family would have their own private quarters, all looking onto an inner courtyard with a community kitchen and room enough for everyone to gather. However she worries that her design is too inward-looking, too insulated from the outside world.
The family is not just Iraqi but also Chaldean — members of an ancient Christian community whose liturgy is still partly in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. This community has been nearly obliterated from Iraq since 2003, due to US destabilization and ISIS persecution. As it happens, one of the largest populations of Chaldeans anywhere in the world is right here in San Diego, largely in El Cajon. Because there is such a large concentration, they have their own parishes, their own bishop, and a vibrant community.
Unfortunately for Noura and her family, no such community exists for them in Queens. Other than their childhood friend Rafa’a, they are completely isolated in the effort to hold onto something of their culture. Their ties to Catholicism are largely cultural rather than personal, and religious observance seems empty in the face of American individualism. Noura is insistent that they fast on Christmas Eve, but is hard-put to explain why that makes any sense.
The crisis comes for the family in the person of a now-grown orphan girl from Mosul, one the family has been supporting and is now meeting for the first time. It turns out the girl’s ties to the family are more than financial, and this provokes the play’s crisis, which is both familial and cultural. Do they still belong to the Chaldean culture and its norms? Or is it time to get modern and American?
The author cites Ibsen’s A Doll’s House as an inspiration for the play, but Noura is not a housewife repressed by her husband and social conventions. She’s a woman wracked by guilt and trying to preserve her dying culture without understanding its vocabulary, its foundations, or its sources of strength.
This is a highly engaging production powered by superb acting. It answers very few of them of the fascinating questions it raises, which is just fine. Bravo to Heather Raffo for remembering fellow playwright Anton Chekhov’s wisdom: “The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them.”
(Suitable for teens but not younger children.)
- Noura, by Heather Raffo
- Old Globe Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, Balboa Park
- Directed by, Johanna McKeon
- Cast, Giovanni Cozic: Yazen/Alex; Mattico David: Tareq/Tim; Isra Elsalihie: Maryam; Lameece Issaq, Noura/Nora; Fajer Kaisi: Rafa’a; Andromache Chalfant, scenic design; Dina El-Aziz, costume design; Driscoll Otto, lighting design; Melanie Chen Cole, sound design.
- Runs through October 20