“Heartland,” where the ache lies.

L-R: Shawn K. Jain as Nazrullah and Ken Baltin as Harold; Photography by Christopher McKenzie.

A national new play network rolling world premier
Presented by New Repertory Theatre
Written by Gabriel Jason Dean
Directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary

January 12—February 9, 2019
The Dorothy and Charles Mosesian Center for the Arts
321 Arsenal St
Watertown, MA 02472
New Rep on Facebook

Review by Diana Lu

(Watertown, MA) Powerfully written and gorgeously staged, New Rep’s production of Heartland is a true masterpiece. Gabriel Jason Dean deftly transforms his experiences of person tragedy into a poignant and profound meditation of the American body politic, particularly our interventionalist foreign policies in the Middle East.

We first meet Prof. Harold Banks (Ken Baltin) in his living room in Omaha, NE. He is irascible yet vulnerable, old and dying. A stranger appears on his doorstep, Naz, an Afghan teacher who has given up his whole life and travelled thousands of miles to find his late beloved’s adopted father. They become Odd Couple-style roommates, and in the quiet hollows of their budding friendship, daughter Getee’s (Caitlin Nasema Cassidy) story emerges. Through flashbacks and apparitions, the painful truth of how these three lives came to intertwine is gradually revealed and reckoned with.

Heartland was achingly beautiful in the way that the greatest art moves us to yearn, hurt and struggle. The space between is collapsed, and the characters, the disparate times and places they occupy, converge to increasingly penetrating and heart-rending effect. Scenes weaved through and crashed into one another with greater and greater boldness and urgency until there was no space left between the characters and “everything but the heart of what must be said” fell away. It was like watching three naked hearts smash together.

Dean’s script and New Rep’s staging incorporated rich detail in every aspect of the production that added so much texture and life, from the primal loss felt by adoptees, to the depth of Afghan cultural context embedded in the script, to how the actors’ movements flowed between scenes, even to the way people in Nebraska wear Husker gear ALL. THE. TIME.

I was particularly moved by the character of Naz (Shawn K. Jain). He is one of the most nuanced, complex, and compassionate portrayals of a Middle Eastern man I’ve ever seen, and the most relatable character for me. That is saying something, because I grew up in Nebraska and my dad is still a humanities professor there.

Shawn K. Jain as Naz is also laugh out loud funny, and not in the usual bumbling-minstrel way. He knowingly wields ironic humor to subvert our worst stereotypes of him for laughs. This is incredibly powerful, because the more othered a group, the less they are portrayed as people who tell jokes and have a wry wit. It’s a subtle but potent form of dehumanization.

Comedy is a hallmark of the human experience, a validation of a person’s perspective in interpreting and synthesizing observations about the world. Taking away our humor is denying us a fundamental layer of abstraction to our humanness. Conversely, giving it back is endowing that person with vivid, full humanity. To do so for a person whose existence is politically incongruous to the West is a powerful and deep subversion of the status quo.

On its surface, Heartland doesn’t get too overtly political or critical. However, as a parable of the devastating and intimate consequences that the patriarchal white savior narrative that continues to be used to justify US imperialism globally, notably in which women of color are at once pawn, alibi, and worst victims thereof, Heartland cuts to the quick both the arrogance and naivete of our worldview, and is as revolutionary as art allows. This is a play that belongs in the great works canon and will stand the test of time, even when someone else is writing our histories.

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