BWW Review: HEARTLAND at Luna Stage
The play takes place in the serene cityscape of Omaha, Nebraska and opens with a zany Dr. Harold Banks (Brian Corrigan) who is in his underwear and wearing an orange Hawaiian button-down shirt trying to find the right words to express his thoughts on writing. "The greatness is in what they choose not to write," he muses aloud. Banks is a retired scholar who taught in Afghanistan in the 1970s and is the father of Getee - his daughter he adopted in Pakistan. He's also dying. Banks lives with the pain of not only cancer, but from withholding a secret from his 29-year-old daughter about having had a hand three decades ago in the making of textbooks for Afghan children that champion propaganda from the inclusion of vicious images to bellicose Islamic teachings like that of jihad, or a fight against the foes of Islam, aimed to ferment resistance against the Soviet Union. The story is loosely based on true events that occurred in 1984 when the USAID and the CIA commissioned the University of Nebraska's Center for Afghanistan Studies to make the books while Banks was professor of Central Asian Literature. Fast-forward to the present day, a recalcitrant Dr. Banks grows increasingly ill, but is reluctant to see a doctor. With his mental and physical health slipping, he finds himself facing his own jihad, a spiritual struggle with his wrongdoing.
Plagued with sleep disturbances and absent-mindedness, Dr. Banks is visited by brilliant mathematician Nazurllah (Kareem Badr) who shows up at his door equipped with a copy of The Old Man and the Sea - a story juxtaposing a similar metaphor of a hapless old man who befriends a young boy who takes an interest in him and helps him to restore a sense of dignity. While Banks is initially irked by the curly haired, somewhat ignorant Naz who has a cherubic face and a heavy Middle Eastern accent (his primary language is Dari), his assuring temperament and childlike persistence were enough to help forge a friendship founded upon trust and understanding. While Banks continues to grapple with his sickness (he insists he "doesn't want to be fixed,") he develops a superstition grounded in his fear of white feathers touching the floor, which, according to his own delusion, portend something terrible will happen. A Larry David moment ensues when Banks and Naz get into a playful pillow fight that turns combative and causes white feathers in the pillow to fall out and float slowly through the air, eventually settling on the floor, dispelling Banks' bizarre fear of some grievous event happening.
As the play goes back in time to Afghanistan, Getee (Lipica Shah), a with-it and hip educator with a zest for teaching, dissects The Diary of Anne Frank with her classroom of teenage girls. One day, Naz serendipitously stumbles into her empty classroom. While Naz has trouble deciphering her dialect, Getee is intrigued, nonetheless, by Naz's left-brained deftness, problem-solving skills and his appreciation for the ancient philosopher and Islamic scholar Rumi. Naz is equally enthralled by her beauty, bookishness, and inability to recognize her own greatness as a teacher. As the two begin to sense chemistry between one another, Getee gives Naz a copy of the iconic novel and an American dictionary to help him interpret the text. When Naz becomes (not surprisingly) offended by some of the book's contents and insists on returning it to her, Getee explains to him about the idea of sarcasm and its light-hearted nature of when Frank, for one, talks briefly about the female anatomy. When Naz begins to "get" the humor in it, he realizes how deeply affected he is of the book and by Getee: "You teach my tongue to make time stop with words," he says to her. Time, however, continues to tick as Dr. Banks grows gravely ill. When Getee returns to Heartland (a term of endearment for her adopted hometown in Omaha, Nebraska and also in Afghanistan where she finds love with Naz) a jihad of sorts ensues between her and her father when he admits his involvement in the making of the Afghan textbooks that glamorize war - an act, she says, made her "culpable of the murder" of her own people. While a rift presents itself between Getee and her father who is reluctant to forgive himself, Naz comes through in an unexpected way, proving truth in Rumi's scholarly wisdom: "Love will find its way through all languages on its own."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Jody Christopherson