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Theatre in Review: Heartland (Geva Theatre Center/59E59)

Mark Cuddy, Mari Viali-Golden, Owais Ahmed. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Thanks to Selling Kabul and English, we have already been gifted with two gripping dramas about Afghanistan this season; now comes Heartland, a kind of dramatic jigsaw puzzle in which the pieces fit altogether too neatly. The linchpin of Gabriel Jason Dean's three-character drama is Harold. A semi-retired comparative literature specialist at University of Nebraska, we first see him lecturing on Earth and Ashes, by the Afghan novelist Atiq Rahimi, and Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. (It's amusing to ponder what today's college students make of Papa H; I'm sure it's not pretty.) Harold has a long history with Afghanistan; he taught there in the 1970s on a Fulbright scholarship and it is where he adopted his daughter Geetee. It's not too much to say that, for nearly three decades, father and daughter have enjoyed an extraordinary closeness.

But now it is 2014, and Harold is alone, his solitude broken by the arrival of Nazrullah, a young Afghan who has come to US, at the behest of Geetee, to play caretaker. The appearance of this total stranger is upsetting to Harold for several reasons, the key one being that Geetee is dead, having been killed by the Taliban while teaching Afghan girls. Harold doesn't want to be reminded of his loss; even more unwelcome is the news that Geetee feared that her father's increasingly erratic behavior signaled the onset of grave illness. But Nazrullah spent his last penny on the false documents that got him into the US and Harold is forced to take him in.

Heartland bounces back and forth between countries, in Nebraska focusing on Harold, who is failing, and his growing dependence on Nazrullah, and, back in Afghanistan, detailing Geetee and Nazrullah's budding mutual attraction. (They are colleagues at the school; he teaches math while she has her students reading The Diary of Anne Frank. Interestingly, not a word is said about antisemitism in Afghanistan, a country with, as of 2019, a Jewish population of one.) The American scenes are a little too cozy-cutesy, with such bits as Nazrullah trying to keep the nightmare-prone Harold awake by belting "Wrecking Ball." ("Miley Cyrus is very good singer," he asserts.) Also, Harold, who insists he can't manage the stairs in his house suddenly engages in a vigorous pillow fight (!) with Nazrullah. The Afghanistan scenes have a certain charm, even if then they are freighted with so much exposition, as Geetee and Nazrullah fall for each other. Then Geetee finds a vintage American textbook from the '80s, designed to gin up resistance against Russian invaders, and she realizes that Harold's interest in Afghanistan is less benign than she knows.

The trouble with Heartland is that the characters seem to have been shaped to fit the plot, rather than the other way around, resulting in a drama that feels contrived and preachy. Harold is difficult to understand without a full understanding of his early career, especially his involvement in international affairs, but we never get the details. As written, Geetee is hard to figure; pushing thirty, she still lives at home and is utterly lacking in focus. (It's unclear if she had a mother or if she was raised by Harold alone.) She is surprisingly incurious about her background until she makes the rash decision to return to her homeland. (There's an especially silly bit of business in which she struggles to pack for her trip, frantically stuffing her suitcase with flimsy cocktail dresses and high heels.) And a fuller explanation is needed for Nazrullah's decision to travel halfway around the world, illegally and at great personal risk, to help out a man he doesn't know.

The play's second half hinges on a profound moral reckoning between father and daughter, which is left unresolved when she is killed. That doesn't stop Dean from providing a laborious series of confrontations meant to punish Harold for his past sins. And the play climaxes with a lengthy speech by Nazrullah that restates points already exhaustively made, followed by an additional sequence of breast-beating on the part of the severely ailing Harold.

Pirronne Yousefzadeh's direction can't smooth over the script's many rough edges, but it does introduce two gifted young talents. Mari Vial-Golden gives Geetee a natural radiance that makes her naivete easier to take; in the later scenes she also makes plausible her character's disillusionment. Owais Ahmed is a consistently appealing Nazrullah, whether slyly reaching out to Geetee or enterprisingly starting a snow-shoveling business to fund the repair of Harold's home heater. Mark Cuddy, a true pro, is solid enough as Harold, but the character is a compendium of grumpy-old-man mannerisms.

Meredith Ries' scenic design, which tries to saddle two worlds, is confusing at first; I kept wondering why there were clumps of grass in Harold's living room. It's a please-all-please-none solution that works better for the Afghanistan scenes. (One nice touch the shelves upstage center, filled with books, pictures, and bric-a-brac, which Geetee empties out during the action, as if symbolically clearing away the past.) Seth Reiser's lighting does a better job of differentiating the locations. Dina El-Aziz's costumes have some perceptive touches, including the NPR T-shirt that signals Nazrullah's growing acculturation. Kate Marvin's solid sound design ranges from the use of Meghan Trainor's "All About the Bass" to news radio reports and the poignant sound of Geetee as a little girl, preserved on audio tape.

Overall, Heartland is a well-intentioned piece undone by its tendency to sermonize and spell out its ideas. It is so convinced of its own right thinking that it leaves the audience with little or nothing to discover for itself. --David Barbour

(29 March 2022)

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