As raw material for docudrama, Heather Raffo's intimate portraits of nine Iraqi women project a spellbinding power. But taken on its own, more ambitious terms, as a polished theater piece about the collective suffering of Iraq's invisible female population, "Nine Parts of Desire" is only four or five parts successful.

As raw material for docudrama, Heather Raffo’s intimate portraits of nine Iraqi women project a spellbinding power. But taken on its own, more ambitious terms, as a polished theater piece about the collective suffering of Iraq’s invisible female population, “Nine Parts of Desire” is only four or five parts successful. The Michigan-born daughter of an American mother and Iraqi father, Raffo spent more than a decade collecting the stories of women denied their voice during Saddam Hussein’s repressive regime and then thrust into deeper silence by the horrors of war and foreign occupation. While the youthful thesp articulates their feelings with passion and sensitivity, Raffo has yet to shape these individuals into an integrated chorus with a vision as well as voice.

Show gets off to a blundering start when an old crone identified as Mulaya (the hired woman who traditionally leads the mourning at funerals) tosses a pile of shoes into a river and speaks in metaphorical mumbo-jumbo about the lost soles/souls of the departed dead. Better the scribe should have assigned the story-framing chores to Nanna, the Mother Courage-like figure who squats in the street trying to sell books, paintings and other remnants of a destroyed civilization to wary U.S. Marines. “Our history is finished,” declares this philosophical sage, who watched mobs of her countrymen burn their own National Archives.

Joanna Settle’s production misses other opportunities to focus the material. Although Peter West’s lighting design clarifies the characters within their separate playing spaces, a minefield of gratuitous props and fussy set pieces (from sandbags and scaffolding to voluminous sheets of plastic) throws up barriers that keep the women from connecting — not to mention a river that cuts them off from one another.

While the directorial intention might have been to heighten the women’s isolation, the staging casts them adrift and denies the piece cohesion.

Even within their fragmentary form as a series of disconnected monologues, the private confidences of the women provide illuminating insights into their shattered lives and moving testimony to their endurance. Not all of the narratives, however, tell a complete story. And those speakers thrust upstage by the static staging lack a sense of depth.

Raffo’s strongest affinities are with the beautiful and conflicted portrait painter Layal, who is positioned front and center in her art studio. A court favorite of Saddam and his brutal sons, Layal sardonically accepts her designation as “a whore” and offers a riveting account of her life at the beck and call of men who would cast off a mistress by literally feeding her to their dogs. “I cannot separate myself from them,” she says of the women whose fateful stories she depicts in her paintings. “Or maybe I do feel separate — so separate from the women here I am always trying to be part of them.”

Raffo also gives consistent attention to other young women with whom she finds affinity, like the unnamed exile living in New York and aching for news of her family trapped in the war zone. “Why don’t we count the number of Iraqi dead?” this emancipated career woman demands of the TV she watches obsessively — while despising herself for multitasking her news-watching with a pedicure. There is also the enchanting schoolgirl, also unnamed, whose father withdrew her from school at the start of the war but who learned to distinguish a Kalashnikov from an M16 by listening to the shots outside her bedroom window.

Older and more “foreign” characters out of Raffo’s thesping range mainly get by on the strength of their own words, like Hooda, an elderly academic who lives among the intellectuals of London, struggling with her conflicted feelings about the Western invasion. “This war is against all my beliefs, and yet I wanted it,” she confesses. There is also the grieving woman who renamed herself Umm, or Mother, after losing all her children in an American bombing raid during the first Gulf War. A woman with a mission, Umm has been keeping vigil since 1991 at the bomb shelter where 403 civilians perished, “fused together” in one charred mass of humanity. “Now you sign the witness book,” she challenges the audience. “Your name will be witness, too.”

While a full-cast production might have given this incendiary material a more devastating impact, it’s impossible to hear the voices of these women without wanting to line up to sign their witness book.

Nine Parts of Desire

Manhattan Ensemble Theater; 140 seats; $55

Production

A Manhattan Ensemble Theater presentation of a solo piece in one act, written and performed by Heather Raffo. Directed by Joanna Settle.

Creative

Set, Antje Ellermann; costumes, Mattie Ullrich; lighting, Peter West; original music and sound, Obadiah Eaves; production stage manager, Lisa Gavaletz. Manhattan Ensemble Theater artistic director, David Fishelson. Opened Oct. 9, 2004. Reviewed Oct. 12. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.
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