Anyone who doubts that the road to hell is paved with good intentions should check out Noura, the new drama going on until March 11 at the Lansburgh Theatre. Everyone else should stay away.
Nothing but well-meaning attempts are evident in the construction, performances, and technical aspects of Noura, the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s contribution to this year’s Women’s Voices Theatre Festival, but the show is chilly and distancing regardless.
This is one of those plays where you don’t wonder why there’s no intermission — people just wouldn’t come back — and you’re grateful for the 90-minute runtime.
Heather Raffo, who also wrote the script, stars as the title character, a 21st-century update on Henrik Ibsen’s Doll House protagonist. So you already know how it’s going to end. This Noura is an Iraqi immigrant living in New York with her husband and son, part of a tiny, upper-middle class diaspora watching in horror from afar as their hometown of Mosul is reduced to ISIS-ridden ashes. To say these are issues worthy of attention is a gross understatement, and Noura is at its best as a political discussion, not a family drama.
The Golden Apple of still more discord arrives in the form of Maryam, a Christmastime visitor who also happens to be a refugee with connections to old family friends in Mosul. If you don’t see the late-in-the-show twist regarding Maryam coming, then you need new glasses, but the other characters are mostly concerned with her unmarried pregnancy. I get that Noura and her husband, Tareq (Nabil Elouahabi) have been supporting this young woman, but that doesn’t make her sex life their business.
The pregnant woman who has nowhere to go (except that she does?) in late December (and yes, they compare her to Mary more than once) feeds discussions that snowball into arguments about everything from the nature of marriage to who’s responsible for the current Iraqi crisis. As directed by Joanna Settle, the show sprawls one woman’s internal crisis across countless demons past and present.
All worthwhile, but we care more about these characters as cultural signifiers than as people. Raffo has written herself more than one centerpiece monologue, and she does a lot of standing outside in shawl, looking up at the winter sky in wonder. The character Noura’s political and cultural arguments are more interesting than she is. Some Christmases, all you want to do is get away.
This will sound needlessly cruel, but the show brings to mind one of the best put-downs from the genius Britcom Black Books: “Enjoy it. It’s dreadful, but it’s quite short.”