Theater Review: “Heartland” — Pointing the Finger at Us

By David Greenham

Heartland proffers a rare combination — it is a prescient history lesson that also works as compelling drama.

L-R: Shawn K. Jain as Nazrullah and Caitlin Nasema Cassidy as Getee in the New Rep production of “Heartland.” Photo: Christopher McKenzie.

Heartland by Gabriel Jason Dean. Directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary. Staged by the New Repertory Theatre as a part of the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere project. Staged in the blackbox theater at Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA, through February 9.

Before Gabriel Jason Dean’s new drama Heartland reveals its secrets, we are given a retired University of Nebraska professor named Harold (a brilliantly scruffy Ken Baltin) in his boxers and a stained t-shirt. He is reciting a class lecture into a battered cassette recorder, attempting to compare the works of two literary exiles, writer and filmmaker Atiq Rahimi and Ernest Hemingway. Harold is struggling for the words, but triumphs when he concludes that the quality that ties the writers together lies in the details they don’t share: “It is the space between the words where the ache lies!” he concludes, adding, “Hot damn Harold, you still got it!”

Dean’s play, produced as part of the National New Play Network‘s Rolling World Premiere project, examines the ache that sits between the words. Harold yearns for his adopted daughter, Getee (Caitlin Nasema Cassidy). He came upon her, an orphaned Afghan child refugee, in a displaced persons camp in Pakistan. “Harold’s the only family I’ve got,” the young woman confesses at one point.

Getee, we learn, has been teaching English and literature to young girls in Blue Sky, an Afghan school where her adopted father once taught. She was adopted at a very young age, so she returns to Afghanistan as an American woman who was raised in the heartland. Her connections to her homeland are more emotional and spiritual than practical. She struggles with the language and traditions, but her big heart and love for her students fills in the gaps. But, most importantly, she aches, deeply, when she discovers a terrible secret about her father: he helped create anti-Soviet propaganda books for Afghan school children.

Getee’s teaching efforts are interrupted by the arrival of Nazrullah (Shawn K. Jain), a charming Afghan student from Kabul who has been recruited as a math instructor. Nazrullah speaks English well and is charismatic. He quickly sweeps Getee off her feet. Despite all the obstacles, the young couple fall in love and they make plans to return to Getee’s father in Omaha. Because Heartland plays around with time and space, we first meet Nazrullah when he arrives at Harold’s messy home. Nazrullah has arrived alone — to care for Harold and to fulfill a promise that he made to Getee.

Heartland proffers a rare combination  — it is a prescient history lesson that also works as compelling drama. The program notes that Dean’s “obsession with Afghanistan” was sparked in 2006 when his brother-in-law’s girlfriend died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan on the way to visit her father, a civilian contractor. During his research, he learned that the US funded the making of anti-Soviet, pro-mujahideen textbooks during the ’80s. The Taliban used these textbooks to spread their anti-imperialist message, which by the 2000s had a new “imperial” nation to target  — the US. “It’s difficult to point the finger at ourselves,” the playwright notes.

The damage done ‘between the lines’ of our foreign policy over the last three or four decades should be a matter of major public discussion — or might be some day if debate in our mainstream ever beings to deal with uncomfortable facts rather than conflicts between brands. In Heartland, Dean avoids the trap of facile political point-scoring; his characters are real, and he trusts them to convey history’s ache.

As Harold, Baltin gives us a portrait of a man who is deteriorating from inside out. His professor is funny, weird, and spellbound by the past — yet he tries to live each moment in the present as fully as he can. What bores him are the normal tasks: dressing, shaving, eating, cleaning, etc. In many ways he is a tragic figure, trying to redeem himself by moving forward, despite his sorrow.

As his adopted daughter Getee, Caitlin Nasema Cassidy conveys an infectious energy that exudes hope, optimism, and considerable naiveté. The figure seems adrift, in the way that many twenty-somethings are. Yet, despite this fuzziness, she is accomplished and focused. Heartland revolves around Getee (the real heart of the play), yet Dean is agile enough as a playwright to make the character a means to set up powerful moments between Harold and Nazrullah. Shawn K. Jain’s performance as Nazrullah is nearly perfect. Jain’s stranger in both “worlds” is charming, funny, and empathetic. We don’t learn a tremendous amount about Nazrullah (a flaw on Dean’s part), but the character is convincingly unflappable, determined to understand and win over both Harold and Getee.

Director Bridget Kathleen O’Leary keeps the proceedings moving seamlessly between Harold’s home in Omaha and the school in Afghanistan. The narrative rarely feels frenetic or obvious, through a couple of pillow fights, attempts to underline a metaphor about a feather, come off as forced.

Afsoon Pajoufar’s set is a plywood shell that contains an upstage platform and couple of steps that run the length of the stage. It is meant to capture, I suspect, the makeshift nature of the school. But it also feels a little like a box within the space’s blackbox. Harold’s house is more or less a chair and small table. The books scattered about him could be in either part of the set. The only other acting area is a small table with rugs, which is used sparingly. The sparse, utilitarianism set-up seems to have led O’Leary to decide to place (too often) the actors at the center of the steps. It is an uninteresting choice. If the set has been designed to be shifted about, it might have enhanced the play’s sensitivity to the passage of time, especially for the flashback scenes at Harold’s home.

Becca Jewett’s costumes are always appropriate. Cassidy looks appealing through a number of costume changes, and Jain’s core costume — layers of what looks like ‘found’ pieces of clothing from various locations — provide plenty of quiet fun. But best of all might be Harold’s costumes – or at least his garb for his first appearance. It’s rare that you see an actor wearing clothes (dirty tee shirt and boxers) that look unwashed — not just “distressed.”

Christopher Brusberg’s lighting is nimbly effective. Lee Schuna’s haunting sound design (the recordings of a young Getee are particularly well done) plays a vital part in putting across what turns out to be a welcome departure from realistic drama — Heartland is more of a dream play.

Congratulations to Artistic Director Jim Petosa and New Rep for programming the efforts of the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premiere project. It is a wonderful program, dedicated to celebrating and staging new plays across the country. For many years there has been talk (and more talk) in the theater world about the need for an American National Theater. National New Play Network may have rendered decades of gum-flapping mute: our National Theater might just be the coordinated efforts of a whole bunch of stages all over the country. They’ve now reached 85 new plays and counting!

David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.

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