The Women’s Voices Theater Festival could use a homegrown breakout hit, a D.C.-built success that wasn’t pretested in Britain or New York. “Noura,” Heather Raffo’s restless, unpredictable riff on Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” and modern Iraq, of all things, shapes up as this festival’s best bet.
It is not an easy show, and this epic-feeling 90-minute premiere at the Shakespeare Theatre Company has not found its most perfect expression yet. But Joanna Settle’s grand, simple staging at the Lansburgh Theatre and Raffo’s impassioned central performance command attention as an apparently successful family of three Christian Iraqi refugees — newly minted U.S. citizens, to boot — gear up for their New York City Christmas celebration.
The story is barely Ibsen, though you recognize Ibsen’s Nora as Raffo’s title character sneaks a cigarette. For Nora, the stolen pleasure was macaroons, but Noura’s husband, Tareq, isn’t nearly the forbidding puppet master of the Ibsen drama.
The couple fled Iraq eight years ago, and their handsome interior suggests they’re doing well. Noura is an architect, and Andrew Lieberman’s swooping round interior, rimmed by an arcing stone wall, gives her an unsettling amount of empty space to rattle around in. When characters exit in this show, it feels as if they’re practically walking off to another hemisphere.
The easygoing dialogue provides a nice window into middle-class immigrant lives too seldom seen on U.S. stages. Noura’s Iraqi roots are deep, so she and Tareq have sponsored Maryam, a college-age woman fleeing the Islamic State. The girl arrives with surprises that shouldn’t be spoiled but that thoroughly drive the course of events.
Motherhood is a theme as Tareq presses for another child; Noura’s teenage son, Yazen, is a major presence, especially as she tailors his Christmas pageant costume to reflect his heritage. The maternal affection — and an urge to protect — only grows as the family prepares wild amounts of food for small numbers of people. As Noura talks about courtyard houses with interior gathering spaces and living quarters for extended family, it’s clear how much she misses the sheer volume of people she was raised with in Iraq.
But that Iraq is gone, Noura laments around the too-big dining table with Tareq and their longtime friend, the doctor Rafa’a (shades of Nora’s secret admirer, Dr. Rank). As Noura, Raffo wrings her hands, gazes at nothing and paces in long circles, then explodes in frustration over how her homeland disintegrated.
It’s why she clings to Maryam, though this defiant, independent young woman — played with calm determination by Dahlia Azama — rubs Tareq the wrong way. The script gets a little too circular for a stretch, with Noura’s funk seeming pretty misty and rapid family arguments quite suddenly detonating over values and politics.
“Oh, my God, Saddam?!” someone moans as recent Iraqi history gets rehashed with illuminating detail but also sometimes with more heat than light.
By the end, it’s “A Doll’s House” with a vengeance as big secrets are revealed and Noura realizes she needs to make a dramatic choice. There is a large reckoning scene with Tareq, who can be both highly sympathetic and stereotypically masculine.
“I know how conservative I sound,” Tareq says, and Nabil Elouahabi largely balances the task of showing how he and Noura do and do not connect. Matthew David is a composed presence as the Muslim Rafa’a, and Gabriel Brumberg’s bright Yazen creates a warm connection with Raffo’s Noura.
The finish is torrential, and the portrait of a woman torn between cultures and family members is nearly searing. As it is, the escalating tone of Settle’s production in some ways echoes Yaël Farber’s “Salome,” the STC’s Women’s Voices show in 2015. “Salome” was bigger and more ritual-driven; the characters in “Noura” wear jeans (the costumes are by Tilly Grimes) and play video games. But “Noura,” too, has tragic dimension, and even with its New York City setting, its evocation of a shattered Iraq is haunting.
About 100 yards away on Woolly Mammoth’s stage, Zimbabwean Americans in Minnesota get their own visitor from the home country in Danai Gurira’s “Familiar.” The shows are utterly different: “Familiar” is a smiling comedy, while “Noura” is a modern drama with classical heft. But the patterns at work are eerily similar: immigrants from Africa and the Middle East settled safely in the United States but still shaken by the past. Like the imperialism themes of Mary Kathryn Nagle’s “Sovereignty” and Annalisa Dias’s “4,380 Nights,” “Noura” and “Familiar” are unexpected spiritual sisters, which is a terrific perk of this kind of festival. The slow crescendo and deep repercussions of “Noura,” in particular, make it the festival’s most ambitious and substantial premiere.
Noura, by Heather Raffo. Directed by Joanna Settle. Lights, Masha Tsimring; sound, Obadiah Eaves. Through March 11 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Tickets $44-$118. Call 202-547-1122 or visit shakespearetheatre.org.