Where do Hemingway, Anne Frank, and Rumi meet to chat geopolitics over chai?
In Gabriel Jason Dean’s new and deeply personal drama, “Heartland,” now playing at The Vortex. The playwright, an alumnus of University of Texas’ Michener Center for Writers, returns to the Austin venue with this heart-rending feature of the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premiere circuit.
Director Rudy Ramirez has skillfully wrought a seamless world in this production — one of ideas, of intrigue, and most remarkable, one which spans two distinct settings cohesively. Scenic designer Ann Marie Gordon’s single set transitions from Omaha, Nebraska to Maidan Shar, Afghanistan with delightful ambiguity which repeatedly blurs and redefines the characters’ whereabouts with precision and flair. Patrick Anthony’s lights, Delena Bradley’s costumes, and Helen Parish’s clever properties all manifest this crucial element of the storytelling. Dean’s elegant script sustains itself on this balance — this strophe and antistrophe — and Ramirez and the design team have struck an impactful equilibrium.
Hemingway, Anne Frank, and Rumi, of course, are merely the literary stand-ins for the trio of complicated characters with whom Dean has populated this play. Dr. Harold Banks (Lowell Bartholomee), a retired University of Nebraska professor of Comparative Literature and Afghan Studies, reels after his adopted daughter Getee (Kacey Samiee) is killed by the Taliban while teaching children outside of Kabul. Afghan refugee Nazrullah (Kareem Badr) arrives at his door carrying Getee’s prized books, and the two men must meet each other in the middle ground.
Bartholomee’s portrayal shows us (literally and figuratively) a literature professor with his pants down. Age, depression, and increasingly frequent memory lapses are already wracking him by the time Nazrullah shows up, yet it is clear from these first moments that Harold bears more than a passing resemblance to many of the characters in the Hemingway novels on which he works as a scholar and can (usually) quote at length. Crucially, however, he briefly mistakes the younger man for a Latino repairman and signals early what the audience will come to know as the professor’s well-intentioned failings.
“I’m not culturally illiterate,” Harold assures his guest.
As their relationship develops and Harold deteriorates, we concurrently follow Nazrullah and Getee as they meet and develop feelings for each other while teaching at an Afghan school several months before. These scenes between Samiee and Badr are sheer joy. They feature Getee’s full range of emotions as she returns to her home country and attempts to teach literature Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl,” of course) and writing: loneliness, indecision, frustration, epiphany, inquiry, and pride. Her handsome and compassionate companion on that journey, Nazrullah, also happens to be available for helping her practice what would have been her native tongue, Dari.
Samiee and Badr have an easy, delightful to watch chemistry that make their scenes together almost dreamlike. As the awkward but likeable American, she infuses each interaction with passion and curiosity. Badr’s counterpoint comes across cool, wry, but always sincere, though he too bears the marks of the literary giant whom he quotes, Rumi. It is, for instance, his influence that corrects Getee’s Westernized (i.e., martialized) definition of “Jihad.” Badr’s Rumi-esque characterization affirms a moment of cultural encountering rather that one of patronization, as could have otherwise been the case.
Fundamentally, Dean’s play takes up a refreshing angle on a familiar theme. Sure, the old white man is guilty, but what if he thought he was doing the right thing? What if he were a scholar of war literature who just wanted to make a difference? What if his academic understanding of geopolitics were revealed to be naiveté next to lived experience? And what if he were your father?
The playwright entangles these many strands of conflict, the connective tissues that link the Cold War to the War on Terror. It does more than expose these fibers, though, many of which are based on the true story of American propaganda efforts in Afghanistan.
It’s as haunted as Hemingway, as relatable as Anne Frank, and as sacramental as Rumi. “Heartland” is a play that demands a reckoning and ultimately models healing.
“Heartland” will also stream live on www.Howlround.tv as a National Watch Party event, 8 p.m. CST Jan. 31.