Heartland by Gabriel Jason Dean is one of those plays that attempt to reveal a foreign civilization by telling a story of a culture clash between Americans and the other country’s natives, in this case Afghanistan. At times it seems dramatically contrived, at others emotionally heartfelt. The personal story is compelling; however, the complex political content may be hard to follow for some Americans.
Set from 2013 – 2015, in the midst of the war with the Taliban and long before the United States pulled out of Afghanistan, Heartland alternates between scenes in Omaha, Nebraska, and the Blue Sky School, in Maidan Shar, not far from Kabul in Afghanistan. Dr. Harold Banks, in his late 60’s is a retired professor of Comparative Literature and Afghan Studies, as well as Dari and Pashto, the languages of Afghanistan, at the University of Omaha. Geetee, 29, is his adopted daughter who was born in Afghanistan but was brought up by Harold in Omaha. After a member of the staff has sent around a brochure asking for teachers of English to volunteer for six months in Maidan Shar at the Blue Sky School, Geetee decides to go there both as a way of learning her culture and a way of paying something back to her people. There she meets Nazrullah, an Afghan math teacher, who comes to work at the school with limited English. Eventually, Nazrullah travels to Omaha to meet Harold as Geetee wanted him to do.
In the course of her stay in Maidan Shar, Geetee discovers that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had actually commissioned the University of Nebraska’s Center for Afghanistan Studies to create textbooks for Afghan school children in 1984. Unfortunately, these text books are pro-jihad and are a kind of brainwashing for the young. Geetee considers this a betrayal which leads to a riff with her father.
When Nazrullah comes to visit Harold to fulfill Geetee’s wish, Harold is already beginning to have trouble remembering both words and facts. He refuses to go to a doctor but appears to know that he is fatally ill. Nazrullah moves in with him and becomes a companion aide. When he finds out why Harold and Gettee were estranged, he also becomes involved in the cultural battle.
Director Pirronne Yousefzadeh’s production for The Geva Theatre Center now at 59E59 Theaters makes it patently clear when we are in Omaha and when we are in Afghanistan although only one set by Meredith Ries is used. While the play’s two strands mostly follow in chronological order, there is a flashback to Geetee’s decision to become a teacher at the Blue Sky School which predates the rest of the story. The play’s theme of making mistakes in trying to help the people of another country is powerful if one understands what that mistake was. Part of the problem with the play is the leisurely way information is imparted and the very slight story used to wrap up the events. However, the characters as well as the actors are compelling. Nevertheless, we don’t really get enough of their backstory to understand them completely.
Mark Cuddy, current artistic director of The Geva Theatre Center, is very convincing as the professor who knows he is sinking into illness and ageing, while he mourns the estrangement from his daughter. Taking his cues from the text, he is very subtle in revealing the symptoms and the signs of his encroaching ailment. As the perplexed and troubled Geetee, Mari Vial-Golden is endearing in both her long reaching relationship with her father and newly developing connection with Nazrullah. Owais Ahmed is amusing as the Afghan math teacher as he attempts to deal with American slang and customs as well as negotiate such literary works as The Diary of Anne Frank and The Old Man and the Sea.
The unit set by Ries successfully overlaps Harold’s living room in Omaha and Geetee’s classroom at the Blue Sky School in Maidan Shar. Dina El-Aziz’s costumes reveal how much it has become a global world, with the outfits for the two cultures not much different. The lighting by Seth Reiser is used to indicate both shifts in time and shifts in location. Also credit is due to Humaira Ghilzai who has worked as cultural consultant and Jenni Werner as dramaturg.
While Gabriel Jason Dean’s Heartland is an enlightening play about Afghan culture mentioning the classic poet Rumi and the contemporary novelist Atiq Rahimi, some of it will still be opaque to American audiences. On the other hand, it also reveals how American involvement in other countries may have the opposite effect of that which is intended. The fine production, however, makes this a compelling though subtle story of an extended family in its understated way. The play was first produced as part of the National Play Network Rolling World Premiere with four simultaneous productions including the one at The Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, New York.
Heartland (March 18 – April 10, 2022)
The Geva Theatre Center
Theater B at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.59e59.org/shows/show-detail/heartland
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission