The impact of American propaganda on Afghani children is admittedly a difficult subject to understand and explain, let alone capture in a 105-minute play. This doesn’t stop Heartland, a Gabriel Jason Dean play directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary, from giving it a shot. But it seems that, just like the conflict in the Middle East, once you start wading in, you quickly find yourself out of your depth.
Nevertheless, Heartland attempts to tease out a nuanced view of the tension in Afghanistan through the lens of a personal story.
Harold (Ken Baltin), a retired professor, is living alone—and slowly finding it harder and harder to remember things—when he meets Nazrullah (Shawn K. Jain). Nazrullah is a young Afghani man who worked with Harold’s daughter Geetee (Caitlin Nasema Cassidy). The two taught together at a school for girls in Afghanistan.
Over the course of the show, Heartland switches back and forth between the present and the memories with Geetee of both Nazrullah and Harold. Through these memories, the audience watches as a relationship blossoms between the two teachers. The audience also watches the relationship between the daughter and her father fall apart. Geetee is never featured in the present because she was killed in a terrorist attack. Her death lends motivation to Nazrullah’s coming to America and Harold’s unwillingness to let go of the past and seek help.
The biggest problem with Heartland might be best explained through one of its most often-used allusions. Both Harold and Geetee teach The Old Man and the Sea in their classes—Harold constantly espouses the virtues of the book and of Hemingway’s writing. Heartland might style itself as the titular old man, subduing the enormous fish that is American-Afghan relations against all odds. In practice, however, Heartland plays like a more disappointing version of the American classic novel. The man is too old, his boat too small, and the fish too big. Heartland’s story is too small, too microcosmic to really relate to or encapsulate the issue. The actors are incongruous with many of their more poignantly intended lines. This results in a play that waffles back and forth between hindsight moralizing of US foreign policy and a beleaguered attempt to deliver its message in a package that remains entertaining.
Heartland would be a better play if its central issue was a little less complex and wide-reaching. It’s simply too big a fish to fry. The performances are perfectly serviceable but are not strong enough to convey Heartland’s message as intended. The set design, by Afsoon Pajoufar, is very well done, but it feels paltry and bare next to the script. The dialogue does the play a disservice. Heartland goes for so much that it often has to stop and explain itself to the audience. Unfortunately, this comes off as if the characters are reading to the audience from a textbook, or perhaps delivering one of Harold’s lectures. Breaking the momentum of the performance to essentially stop and read exposition about the nuanced meaning of the word “jihad” or the evolution of the Taliban stops Heartland from flowing naturally from scene to scene.
It’s unfortunate that Heartland isn’t able to carry its own message, and that its message weighs down the play. Each aspect, on its own, would be very interesting. It is the combination that proves too much to tackle.
HEARTLAND. THROUGH 2.9. AT NEW REPERTORY THEATRE, 321 ARSENAL ST., WATERTOWN. NEWREP.ORG