Luna Stage is closing out its 2018-2019 season with a bang.
Gabriel Jason Dean’s Heartland critiques the cost of U.S. interventionism by distilling it down to its impact on three people — an Omaha professor with a dark secret, his adopted Afghan daughter and the Afghan man she falls in love with. Along the way Dean weaves in lessons about compassion, great literature and Islam. All told with grace and humor. His well-crafted script is brought to life by Ari Laura Kreith’s masterful directing and compelling acting by a fabulous ensemble of three actors. I connected with each one.
The play centers around Harold Banks (Brian Corrigan), a literature professor living in Omaha, Nebraska. We’re introduced to him as he dictates his class notes into a recorder, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt covering his briefs. He struggles to find the right words as he talks into the recorder. He’s visited by Nazrullah (Kareem Badr), a friend of Harold’s adopted daughter Getee (Lipica Shah) who teaches teenage girls in Afghanistan.
Corrigan deftly handles Harold’s complexity. He’s crotchety and vulnerable; Harold is aware of his decline but chooses to fight it. At first he’s hostile to Naz, but the relationship blossoms.
Kareem Badr’s portrayal of Naz is amazing. He’s compassionate, intelligent and spontaneously funny, singing Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” in a conversation with Harold.
Dean put a lot of thought into creating Naz.
“I remember one of the goals of this play early on was I wanted to write a good Afghan character, somebody who was good at heart, flawed in the way that we are all flawed, but decidedly not a terrorist. Someone who had a healthy relationship to Islam,” says Dean, in a conversation with the playwright.
Lipica Shah rounds out the cast as Getee. Harold adopted her after her parents were killed when she was a young child and raised her in America. Shah is wonderful as a woman with one foot in Afghanistan and one foot in America. After she graduates from college, Getee accepts a teaching gig in Afghanistan to reconnect with her roots and find out who she is.
Kudos to scenic designer Jen Price Fick, lighting designer Jennifer Fok and costume designer Deborah Caney, for proving that less is more when it comes to great stagecraft. The set seamlessly transitions from Nebraska to Afghanistan throughout the work.
The play is told in flashbacks, we see how Getee meets Naz. They talk about chai tea and the book Getee is discussing with her class: The Diary of Anne Frank. At first Naz is reluctant to read it, but Getee convinces him to check it out. Their conversations about the book are touching and poignant. Later, Getee talks to Naz about a textbook she found for young students praising Jihad, meant to stoke resistance to the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
How does this textbook affect the relationship among Getee, Naz and Harold? Treat yourself to a powerful night of theater to find out.
Heartland, extended through May 5 at Luna Stage. Ticket information is here.
Upcoming special events include:
4/25 at 6:45pm | Pre-show LunaLit discussion of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West with Rabbi Elliott Tepperman
4/26 | Post-show conversation with Seham Abdala and Zainab Alam of NJ Islamic Networks Group
4/28 at 2pm | LunaLit: Marc Aronson on his new Young Adult book Rising Water about the Thai cave rescue
The full schedule is available at LunaStage.org/Heartland.