‘Heartland’ evokes life in turbulent times, without oversimplifying

Heartland review

PHOTOS BY JODY CHRISTOPHERSON

Brian Corrigan, left, and Kareem Badr co-star in “Heartland,” which is at Luna Stage in West Orange, through May 5.

Anyone who finds current political discourse disheartening, in its relentless reduction of complex issues to easily digestible sound bites, will surely find Gabriel Jason Dean’s “Heartland” — currently being presented at Luna Stage in West Orange — to be refreshing. It’s a topical drama, but Dean refuses to simplify, creating a rich tale of three people — an American, an Afghan, and an Afghanistan-born American — caught up in political, social and religious forces beyond their control.

In other words, it’s the perfect play to close Luna Stage’s 2018-19 season, which has the stated theme of “exploring the question of how we come together across cultural and social divides.”

Brian Corrigan plays Harold, a semi-retired literature professor at the University of Nebraska in Omaha who is starting to show signs of dementia. Lipica Shah is his adopted, English-speaking daughter, Getee, a native of Afghanistan who has returned to her homeland (or maybe I should say heartland?) to teach English to Afghan children, using “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Harold had also taught English in Afghanistan, decades ago, using Hemingway.

Lipica Shah in “Heartland.”

Dean ventures back and forth between continents, and between the years, to tell three stories: How Getee falls in love with Nazurllah (Kareem Badr), a math teacher with limited command of the English language, in Afghanistan; how Nazurllah and Harold meet — and fight, and bond — in Nebraska, later; and how Getee learns of actions that Harold took, in the past, that had (unintended) disastrous consequences.

Can Getee forgive Harold for doing something that made sense to him under different circumstances, at a different point in history, but now clearly seems like the wrong thing to do? And also, as mentioned, there is Harold’s worsening dementia to deal with.

That’s a lot of raw material to pack into a one-act play, but Dean, the actors and director Ari Laura Kreith (Luna Stage’s artistic director) make every word count. Even the humorous touches — and there are many of them — have a larger meaning, stemming, often, from cultural misunderstandings that are central to the characters’ relationships.

I thought the depiction of Getee and Nazurllah’s romance was particularly strong, capturing the way two people, attracted to each other but from different cultures, take step forwards and backwards as they try to read signs that their different backgrounds render hard-to-read, but eventually are able to make a connection. But I found Corrigan’s portrayal of Harold — a lion of a man, grown unsure of himself — to be quite poignant, too.

Scenic designer Jen Price Fick cleverly decorates the stage’s floor with a huge collage of book pages; Harold and Getee share a love of literature, after all, and use literature as a bridge to Afghan culture.

“Heartland” was originally scheduled to close on April 28, but has been extended to May 5. Special events will include, on April 26, a post-show conversation with Seham Abdala and Zainab Alam of the New Jersey Islamic Networks Group. Visit lunastage.org.

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