Review: An American Professor and an Afghan Refugee Meet in the Heartland of America
Gabriel Jason Dean's play makes its off-Broadway premiere at 59E59 Theaters.
Gabriel Jason Dean's Heartland, making its off-Broadway premiere at 59E59 Theaters in a Geva Theatre Center production, is worth seeing in one respect: It shines a light on a dark corner of geopolitical history that is very much worth knowing, especially since it ties to recent events in now Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and to America's complicity in them. But if works of art were measured simply by how educational they were, even the most boring instructional films could be thought to have artistic merit.
Set at various points from 2013 to 15, Dean's play centers around the relationship that develops between Harold (Mark Cuddy), a retired American professor of Comparative Literature and Afghan Studies in Nebraska, and Nazrullah (Owais Ahmed), an Afghan refugee who shows up at his doorstep one day claiming to know his adopted daughter, Geetee, who was recently killed in a Taliban attack at a school in Afghanistan. While Harold and Nazrullah gradually become friends, Heartland also fills in the backstory of how Nazrullah and Geetee (Mari Vial-Golden) met and eventually fell in love at the school. But a dark secret of Harold's past drove a wedge between him and Geetee when she was alive, and threatens to do so with him and Nazrullah when he discovers it for himself. Once that secret is revealed, Heartland's characters come to look more allegorical, with Harold representing the ends-justifying-the-means perspective of the US during the Cold War, Nazrullah the tragic long-lasting consequences of the US's actions, and Geetee the rising consciousness of America's culpability in Afghanistan's current troubled state.
As Dean has written these characters, though, they don't really expand much beyond their functions as allegorical emblems. In this context, even Harold's mental decline — throughout the play, he shows signs of what appears to be aphasia, as he momentarily forgets words — feels more like a contrived attempt to instill tragic grandeur into a character that can't support such weight. As a result, Heartland comes off as an adult after-school special: something that is "good" for us, even if it is less than memorable dramatically.
The three performers do what they can to bring this glorified history lesson to life. Cuddy and Ahmed slightly overplay their early scenes together, bringing odd-couple sitcom energy that feels too insistent in their desire to entertain. Thankfully, they both eventually begin to modulate their performances as Harold and Nazrullah get to know each other better. And Vial-Golden generates both palpable romantic chemistry with Ahmed (Rocío Mendez deserves plaudits for some pinpoint intimacy coordination in their scenes together) and heated intensity with Cuddy when Geetee discovers her father's secret. Much of the play's impact relies on the conviction the actors bring to their characters.
Director Pirronne Yousefzadeh does her best to accommodate Dean's shuffling between past and present in the relatively cramped quarters of 59E59's Theater B, with Meredith Ries's single, unchanging, pastel-colored set representing both Harold's house and a classroom at the Afghanistan school where Nazrullah and Geetee meet. Though the minimalist approach does fulfill Dean's own desire, according to his script directions, for "space and time [to] crash effortlessly into each other," seeing shifts in time marked by one character exiting while another enters feels less like lyricism than it does a production with space and budgetary constraints. Still, Yousefzadeh does come up with one strikingly poetic touch in her staging: Harold's sinking deeper into his mental illness is reflected in Geetee's metaphorical act of occasionally removing books from the bookshelf lining the back of Ries's set until, by the end, no books are left.
Perhaps the most impactful lesson one is bound to take away from Heartland is its reclamation of the word jihad from its more recent negative association with the atrocities of terrorism. "Taliban make war," Nazrullah reminds Harold at one point. "Jihad is no war…is struggle." That's worth remembering, especially now that Afghans face an uncertain future with the Taliban back in charge, in part because of America's messy withdrawal from the country last year. As an attempt to bridge a vast political and emotional divide between the West and the Middle East, Dean's play is certainly laudable, if never quite as emotionally devastating as one feels this material ought to be.