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Off Broadway Reviews


Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 26, 2022

Mark Cuddy and Owais Ahmed
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Gabriel Jason Dean's Heartland, opening tonight at 59E59 Theaters in a Geva Theatre Center production, is a play about passion. On the one hand, it is a tender love story that unfolds in the midst of war. On the other, it is cry of rage against one aspect of that war, a "j'accuse" aimed at agencies of the United States government that, in the interests of national security, added fuel to the fire that has blazed for decades in Afghanistan.

With Heartland, you cannot get one without the other. The play takes place in 2014, at the height of some of the fiercest fighting between United Nations forces and the Taliban. But before we cross over into Afghanistan, we spend some time in Omaha, Nebraska, at the home of Harold Banks (Mark Cuddy, giving an outstanding performance, in turn funny, arrogant, and tormented over the course of the play). Harold, an American professor of comparative literature who at one time worked in Afghanistan, is recording a lecture when he is interrupted by an insistent knocking at his door. Enter Nazrullah (Owais Ahmed, equally wonderful as the upbeat and appealing heart of the play). He comes bearing sad news, a helping hand, and Harold's very own copy of an autographed first edition of Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea."

The unhappy news is about Harold's daughter, Geetee (Mari Vial-Golden, rounding out the trio of altogether terrific performances). Harold adopted Geetee after finding her as a young child in a refugee camp when he was in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Raised in the United States and now grown, she has gone to her homeland to teach and to learn more about her birth culture. Before she left, Harold gave her the Hemingway book as a kind of talisman, exacting a promise that she would bring it back to him when she returned safely to Omaha. Owing to a bombing raid, that reunion will never happen, except indirectly through Nazrullah.

The play itself shifts in time and place between the two settings, with Nazrullah serving as the link. The simple set designed by Meredith Ries allows for an easy bleeding together of the locales, while director Pirronne Yousefzadeh and lighting designer Seth Reiser smooth the path for the transitions. The scenes in Afghanistan, where Geetee and Nazrullah meet, are as sweet and warmhearted as in any well-written romantic comedy, and love proves that it can bloom under even the harsh conditions of a battle zone.

Yet, it is an unfortunate truth that love and optimism about the future do not always lead to a happy ending. Nor a happy middle, as it happens, as we, along with Geetee, discover that Harold's work back in the 1980s was done in support of the American anti-Soviet propaganda campaign at a time when the ground war in Afghanistan involved the Soviet Union against the Mujahideen. All hell breaks loose during a harrowing scene in which Geetee confronts her father on a video call.

There is more than a suggestion that Harold's work led directly to the rise of the Taliban and, by connecting the dots, to Geetee's death. Now, when fate has made certain there can be no reconciliation, Nazrullah has undertaken the long journey to the United States, where his interactions with Harold are decidedly complicated, though tempered with a mercy that the once-certain professor may or may not deserve. You will have to decide that for yourself, as well as weigh your willingness to listen to some fist-shaking, castigating speeches that accompany the human story that unfolds so movingly.

Through April 10, 2022
Geva Theatre Center production
59E59 Theaters - Theater B, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: