BWW Review: HEARTLAND: What's Going On?
A National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere, Written by Gabriel Jason Dean, Directed by Bridget Kathleen O'Leary; Scenic Designer, Afsoon Pajoufar; Costume Designer, Becca Jewett; Lighting Designer, Chris Brusberg; Sound Designer, Lee Schuna; Stage Manager, Renee E. Yancey
CAST (in alphabetical order): Ken Baltin, Caitlin Nasema Cassidy, Shawn K. Jain
Heartland conjures up an image of amber waves of grain and purple mountains majesties. For the part of it that is set in Nebraska, some of that may be appropriate. However, for the portion of it that is set in Afghanistan, it may be nothing more than a mirage. Likewise, the image of the United States as a land of exceptionalism and the world's moral authority would receive far more acceptance in the heartland than in that faraway, war-torn country that has been intertwined with ours for decades. Playwright Gabriel Jason Dean holds a mirror up to the face of US involvement with Afghanistan from the time of Russia's occupation, exploring a myriad of questions about responsibility, complicity, transparency, and morality, and the unintended consequences that always follow from even the most noble efforts.
There is no denying or escaping the political aspects of Heartland, but its focus on the three characters and their relationships with each other is, for me, the most compelling feature. Dr. Harold Banks (Ken Baltin) is a retired University of Nebraska literature professor who specializes in the work of Ernest Hemingway, yet is also affiliated with the Center for Afghanistan Studies and is fluent in the Dari Language. Getee (Caitlin Nasema Cassidy) is his adopted daughter who he rescued from an Afghanistan refugee camp, who has returned to her homeland to teach young girls. While there, she encounters Nazrullah (Shawn K. Jain), a Muslim math teacher, and their burgeoning relationship alters the way they view the world.
Dean fluidly traverses both geography and time, with scenes set in Harold's Omaha home, the school in Afghanistan, and Harold's mind, allowing us to observe its diminishing capability over the course of about 18 months. The play opens in September, 2014, when Nazrullah shows up unexpectedly at Harold's door and has to explain his identity and connection to Getee. Flashbacks show their meeting at the school, Getee's and Harold's parting about a year earlier, and the evolution of Getee's and Nazrullah's friendship and eventual romance. She was preparing to return to the States to check up on Harold when she was killed, compelling Nazrullah to make his way to the US to fulfill her intentions.
Despite his outward wariness and crankiness, Harold begins to develop a fondness for Nazrullah and they become unlikely roommates. They are like oil and water, but the refugee is patient and kind, seeking to create the family that he lost in Afghanistan, while Harold can hold onto a piece of Getee through his connection with Nazrullah. In another in a catalogue of distinguished portrayals, Baltin anchors Heartland as he goes deeply into the complexity of his character. This man loves his daughter, his scholarly work, and his country, but his zealotry for one creates a damaging rift with another. Jain's nuanced performance gives Nazrullah a magnetic quality, a combination of warmth, intelligence, and empathy that makes him the playwright's moral messenger without being a scold.
Cassidy is mesmerizing in a role that travels a long arc in a short time. As she prepares for her journey to the land of her origin, she wavers between excitement and anxiety, ultimately choosing to do that which she fears in order to learn what questions she needs to ask. At the school, Cassidy shows her progress, building confidence in her teaching, blooming in her relationship with Naz, and becoming enlightened and enraged about America's insidious effect on the country's politics. Her fiery passion tilts the nature vs. nurture argument towards the latter.
Bridget Kathleen O'Leary's seamless direction is a testament to her long involvement with Dean and the development of Heartland as part of the National New Play Network. The disturbing politics notwithstanding (and they are, indeed, disturbing), O'Leary grasps the importance of the personal themes and forcefully connects the dots between them to make them inseparable. Each of the characters is on a journey on parallel roads, but the real story is told where they all intersect. Only then are we able to understand, in the words of Marvin Gaye, what's going on.
Photo credit: Christopher McKenzie (Caitlin Nasema Cassidy, Shawn K. Jain)