Review: An American Professor and an Afghan Refugee Meet in the Heart of America

Gabriel Jason Dean heartland, which premieres off-Broadway at 59E59 Theaters in a production of the Geva Theater Center, is worth seeing in one respect: it shines a light on a dark corner of geopolitical history that is truly worth knowing, especially more that it has to do with recent events in now Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and America’s complicity with them. But if works of art were simply measured by their educational character, even the most boring instructional films could be considered to have artistic value.

Set at various times from 2013-15, Dean’s play centers on the developing relationship between Harold (Mark Cuddy), a retired American professor of comparative literature and Afghan studies in Nebraska, and Nazrullah (Owais Ahmed), an Afghan refugee who shows up on his doorstep one day claiming to know his adopted daughter, Geetee, who was recently killed in a Taliban attack on a school in Afghanistan. As Harold and Nazrullah gradually become friends, heartland also fills in the backstory of how Nazrullah and Geetee (Mari Vial-Golden) met and eventually fell in love at school. But a dark secret from Harold’s past drove a wedge between him and Geetee when she was alive, and threatens to do so with him and Nazrullah when he finds out for himself. Once this secret is revealed, heartlandThe figures become more allegorical, with Harold representing the prospect of the end justifying the means of the United States during the Cold War, Nazrullah the tragic long-term consequences of United States actions, and Geetee the growing awareness of the guilt of the United States. America in the current troubled state of Afghanistan.

As Dean wrote these figures, however, they do not really extend beyond their functions as allegorical emblems. In this context, even Harold’s mental decline – throughout the play he shows signs of what appears to be aphasia, as he momentarily forgets words – looks more like a contrived attempt to instill a tragic greatness to a character who cannot bear such a weight. As a result, heartland presents itself as an after-school special for adults: something that’s “good” for us, even if it’s dramatically far from memorable.

Owais Ahmed plays Nazrullah and Mark Cuddy plays Harold in Gabriel Jason Dean heartlanddirected by Pirronne Yousefzadeh, for Geva Theater Center at 59E59.
(© Carol Rosegg)

The three performers do what they can to bring this glorified history lesson to life. Cuddy and Ahmed slightly overact their first scenes together, bringing an eerie sitcom energy that seems overly insistent in their desire to entertain. Luckily, they both begin to modulate their performances as Hiccup and Nazrullah get to know each other better. And Vial-Golden generates both palpable romantic chemistry with Ahmed (Rocío Mendez deserves applause for precisely coordinating intimacy in their scenes together) and passionate intensity with Cuddy when Geetee discovers his father’s secret. Much of the play’s impact is based on the belief that the actors bring to their characters.

Director Pirronne Yousefzadeh does her best to accommodate Dean’s shuffling between past and present in the relatively cramped quarters of 59E59’s Theater B, with Meredith Ries’ unique, unchanging, pastel-colored set depicting both Harold’s home and a classroom at the Afghan school where Nazrullah and Geetee meet. Although the minimalist approach responds to Dean’s own desire, according to his script instructions, for “space and time [to] crashing effortlessly into each other”, seeing changes in time marked by the exit of one character while another enters feels less like lyricism and more like a production with space constraints and budget. Yet Yousefzadeh offers a striking poetic twist in his staging: sinking deeper into his mental illness is reflected in Geetee’s metaphorical act of occasionally removing books from the library that lines the back of Ries’ set. until at the end there are no books left.

Mark Cuddy, Mari Vial-Golden and Owais Ahmed Appear in Gabriel Jason Dean’s Off-Broadway Premiere heartland.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Perhaps the most powerful lesson we are forced to learn heartland is his recovery of the word jihad of its more recent negative association with the atrocities of terrorism. “The Taliban are at war,” Nazrullah reminds Harold at one point. “Jihad is not a war…it is a struggle.” It’s worth remembering, especially now that Afghans face an uncertain future with the Taliban back in power, in part because of America’s disorderly withdrawal from the country last year. As an attempt to bridge a vast political and emotional divide between the West and the Middle East, Dean’s piece is certainly commendable, if not as emotionally devastating as one would think this material should be.

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