The only place she could pull all the pieces of her history together would be in a surrealist frame, painted by Salvador Dali.
Noura, the Iraqi refugee who is the title character of Heather Raffo’s 2018 one-act that made its regional premiere Friday at the Guthrie Theater, lives in America, the place where she can sneak a cigarette and wondrously experience falling snow. But her soul remains in Iraq, the now-shattered land where her family found community for generations and where she abruptly left treasures. There she was an architect, building a future. Here, she’s a disregarded tutor in a New York public school.
Still, like immigrants from time immemorial, Noura (Gamze Ceylan) persists in trying to rebuild some semblance of wholeness as she stretches to reconcile her past with her present.
Raffo’s 90-minute play takes off on Ibsen’s iconic central character in “A Doll’s House.” But unlike Ibsen’s Nora, a proto-feminist who famously walked out on her family to make a life of her own, Raffo’s Noura has a bigger departure — her homeland. She pines for her large extended family.
The playwright does nod to the independence of Ibsen’s main character. “Noura” includes quick-witted orphan Maryam (Layan Elwazani), who was supported over there by contributions from Noura and who recently arrived from Iraq. She has no family history, which explains Maryam’s Western sensibility, even if she occasionally feels more like a plot device than a real person (no knock on Elwazani, a slow-lit firecracker).
“Noura” is part of the Guthrie’s welcomed celebration of Arab and Arab-American artistry this winter, which includes upcoming shows “Grey Rock” from Palestine and Hanane Hajj Ali’s “Jogging” from Lebanon.
Even if it could use some more wit and lyricism, playwright Raffo’s smartly crafted work is revelatory, showing Iraqi-American characters as ordinary people struggling to harmonize notes in a complicated life. The character list includes Rafa’a (charismatic Kal Naga), a doctor who also fled Iraq and who shows up regularly at the home Noura shares with husband Tareq (sympathetic Fajer Kaisi) and son Yazen — actors Aarya Batchu and Akshay Krishna split the sweet role.
The action, which takes place on designer Matthew Saunders’ door-less set framed by moving boxes, feels like it’s not plotted out. That we can’t neatly see where things are going does not read as a dramaturgical flaw. It’s nice to be genuinely surprised.
Director Taibi Magar is best known in the Twin Cities for her funny, heartwarming staging of Danai Gurira’s “Familiar” at the Guthrie in March 2018. She suffuses “Noura” with tenderness as the title character smooches her husband and cuddles with her son.
Ceylan, a Turkish-German performer living in New York, invests her title character with flinty determination. She’s alternately spiky and cerebral in the role, giving us a window into Noura’s thoughts as this new American tries so passionately to hold onto what she lost even as her focus and grip threatens to rob her of what she can gain.
In that sense, it’s a lesson about presence, about painting a life with the material you have, even if your memories are haunted by what you miss.