MINNEAPOLIS — In 1878, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen was feeling guilty for not lending his friend Laura Kieler money. She had forged her husband’s signature for an illegal loan, begged Ibsen for help, but he refused. Kieler’s husband found out about it and committed his wife to an asylum.
Ibsen wrote “A Doll’s House” in response, which illustrated the limited choices and limited roles faced by women in his society. It was a hit, and became an anthem for women’s liberation far ahead of its time.
In “Noura,” which is currently running at the Guthrie Theater, playwright Heather Raffo takes elements of Ibsen’s play and sets it in the present day, centering on a Christian Iraqi couple living in New York with their son.
The play, like the one it is based on, grapples with sexism women continue to face today, particularly in the world of this one refugee family, while also mining themes of Islamophobia, trauma, and not belonging as a refugee in America.
Raffo’s characters are well-drawn and the playwright shows skill handling the issues the characters face.
Unfortunately, the play falls trap to some serious melodrama at the end, which takes away from the script’s strong points.
“Noura” is one of two plays currently running in the Twin Cities that are based on “A Doll’s House.” The other, “A Doll’s House, Part II,” by Lucas Hnath, is being performed at the Jungle Theater. Neither of the two new plays stand up to the original, but “Noura” is the stronger of the two.
Raffo’s father is a Christian Iraqi and her mother is American. She grew up in Michigan as a Catholic.
In her program notes, Raffo says the play grew in part out of a series of workshops she led at the Epic Theatre Ensemble in New York with Arab American women, writing their personal narratives.
In the workshops, the women read “A Doll’s House” and found that the play’s ostensible feminist message didn’t have anything to do with their own struggles in their lives.
In Ibsen’s original story, Nora is a seemingly flighty housewife who sneaks chocolate when her husband, Torvald isn’t looking and overspends his money. However, as the play progresses, we learn Nora is only pretending to buy expensive luxury items, in fact paying off a debt she incurred during Torvald’s illness early in their marriage.
When he learns the truth, his violent and unforgiving reaction makes Nora see him for he is, ultimately realizing she is better off without him. Ibsen’s famous door slam, when Nora leaves her husband and children at the end of the play, shocked audiences so much in 1879, Ibsen was forced to write a new “happy” ending in 1880.
There are echoes of Ibsen’s characters in Raffo’s version, directed at the Guthrie by Taibi Magar. Noura (played by Gamze Ceylan), like Nora, is filled with anxiety when her past begins to catch up with her.
Noura’s husband Tareq (played by Fajer Kaisi), like Torvald, is over-sexual, lusting after his wife even when she doesn’t seem all that interested in reciprocating.
While not as domineering or even as cruel as the husband in Ibsen’s story, there’s a similar switch that happens with his character as the play progresses. At first he appears likable and even reasonable, and only later the audience is presented with some serious faults to his character.
Ceylan portrays Noura like a kettle just about to pop off its lid. Noura tries to appear as a gracious host welcoming her guests for Christmas, but her perturbation overflows in fits and starts, so that by the time the second half of the play rolls around, she’s barely holding it together.
Raffo makes Noura a smoker, and the cigarettes act similarly to Nora’s love of chocolates in the original play— they offer a slice of private moments of pleasure and solace. The cigarette breaks Noura takes on the balcony of their apartment are some of the most beautiful moments in the play, where we see Noura as her true self, as the gentle snow falls down on her.
Matt Saunders’ set really works for the piece. Noura and Tareq’s apartment appears makeshift, despite having lived in the United States for over a decade.
Cabinets and shelves are made of U-Haul boxes, and papers are scattered all over the kitchen table. This is a family that really hasn’t settled into their new life.
Behind the kitchen, Saunders’ set shows us a desolate and grim scene, almost like ruins. The design reinforces the notion that the plight of their destroyed homeland lies just beyond their consciousness.
The biggest missed opportunity the play presents is in the relationship between Noura and Noura and Tareq’s friend Rafa’a (played by Kal Naga.) They’ve known each other since they were young, all living in Iraq.
Like Ibsen’s character of Dr. Rank, who pines for Nora, Rafa’a has always loved Noura, and in many ways understands her better than her own husband.
In Raffo’s script, Rafa’a is Muslim, and there’s an interesting scene in which he mourns their early days in Iraq, when it didn’t matter that they were of different faiths. In the present day, he faces Islamophobia in the U.S., and in the intervening years in Iraq, Christians were forced to flee ISIS.
In some ways, the scene is the most compelling of the whole play. But instead of investigating these themes further, Raffo lets the plot veer into something much more like a soap opera.
The melodramatic ending is too bad, because there was plenty of drama and intrigue in the relationships between these characters, without adding over the top plot points that railroaded the end of the play.
It brings up the question of why it is necessary to rethink pieces like “A Doll’s House” that have become strongholds of the Western canon.
Whatever its limitations may be as a play written by a man about the plight of women, there’s certainly much to admire about Ibsen’s tightly written classic of dramatic realism. However, the characters Raffo comes up with are constrained by the earlier story. Noura’s arch would have been better served with a more contemporary set of circumstances.
“Noura” runs through February 16 at the Guthrie Theater, 818 South 2nd Street., Minneapolis. Tickets are $25 to $79.