The Vortex Repertory Company's Heartland
Gabriel Jason Dean's new drama makes a sensitive study of three people in two different countries and where they belong
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Feb. 8, 2019
A math problem: Person A, who grew up in Country X, has decided to move to Country Y to teach. She leaves behind Person B, who adopted her in Country Y when he taught there and brought her home with him to Country X. In Country Y, Person A meets Person C, a native of that land, and they become involved. Person A suggests Person C come to Country X with her. But a crisis leads Person C to come to Country X alone, and there he must care for Person B, who's ailing. Which person belongs in which country?
That problem isn't the one that playwright Gabriel Jason Dean includes as a plot point in his new drama Heartland, receiving a rolling world premiere through the National New Play Network, but it may be the one he wants audiences to solve. For all three characters in it, the meaning of home is complicated by a pull toward another land, another culture. For professor Harold Banks, American by birth, Afghanistan is a country he was drawn to study as a scholar and where he spent time as a teacher, even taking on the responsibility of rearing an orphan he found in a refugee camp there. His adopted daughter, Getee, grew up in Omaha, Neb., so thoroughly Americanized she lost her native language. But as an adult, the tug of Afghanistan is so strong that she chooses to return there to teach, as her father did. There, she meets Nazrullah, an Afghani in whose eyes Getee is American, and as they grow close, his attraction to her gets intertwined with that part of her identity. And in fulfilling a promise to her that he would return her father's books to him, Nazrullah must move to Omaha and move in with Harold. So the equation isn't simply a matter of allegiance to one's birthplace. Variables affect the outcome, variables that involve connections between people – the ties that bind.
Dean introduces these variables with the care of someone handling a signed first edition of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea (one of Harold's prized possessions, which he sends with Getee to Afghanistan). It helps us see the innate decency in these three people, their natural impulse to help others, to reach across a divide separating person from person, race from race, and offer their hand. That quality, shared among these characters, adds to their humanity and appeal.
And their appeal is considerable in the Vortex Repertory Company's staging. Director Rudy Ramirez has cast actors whose sensitivity to these characters' emotional core makes their every feeling – concern, amusement, affection, uncertainty, charity, frustration, tenderness, grief – as natural and genuine as breath. Lowell Bartholomee's Harold has absorbed The Old Man and the Sea into his bloodstream; with Getee gone and his mind slipping, he's "adrift ... alone ... alone in dark waters." We see it in his eyes as they veer away from those who would help him, in his restlessness roaming the stage, in his disconsolate collapse upon the couch. Kacey Samiee's Getee is the positive pole to her father's negative; there's light in her face, a radiant optimism that always banishes the shadows of her insecurities (her struggle with the Dari language, mostly). Her sunny smile and the ease with which Samiee carries herself draw you to her Getee. It's easy to see why Kareem Badr's Nazrullah inches closer with every encounter. His hands behind his back signal the character's reserve, but as Nazrullah spends time with someone, Badr slyly opens him up, flirting with Getee (the chemistry he and Samiee share provokes a smile), grousing with Harold.
Dean bends time and space to show these relationships unfolding, bouncing between Omaha and Maidan Shar, between past and present, between the time when Getee was living and the time after she was killed by the Taliban. He wants us to process a romance's birth and a daughter's death at once, to contemplate the geopolitics of the U.S. in post-9/11 Afghanistan and the U.S.S.R. in Cold War Afghanistan. Ramirez stages this all in one space – Ann Marie Gordon's set efficiently draws on both Midwest living room and Middle East classroom – and, with Patrick Anthony's deft lighting, shifts us from setting to setting as smoothly as memory. But no matter where in the world we are, the emotional geography is clear. The lesson that Dean and the artists of the Vortex impart here is that the heart is its own country.
HeartlandThe Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd., 512/478-5282
Through Feb. 9
Running time: 1 hr., 40 min.