Some fine actors are at work at Luna Stage
The ongoing tragedy that is Afghanistan is the basis for Gabriel Jason Dean’s play Heartland, the fourth and final production of the season at Luna Stage in West Orange. Set in both present-day Omaha, Nebraska and not-too-long-past Maiden Shar, Afghanistan, the play explores questions about the levels of responsibility for the Asian country’s current situation.
The answers to those questions affect the lives of three people: aging university professor Harold (Brian Corrigan), an expert on Afghanistan; his adopted Afghani daughter Getee (Lipica Shah), herself teaching girls in her home country; and Nazurllah (Kareem Badr), a gentle-souled Afghani math teacher. The link between the three is a textbook written in Dari, the Afghan language, produced by the United States during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. It is a propaganda piece in the guise of a combination reading and math book designed to indoctrinate children into the Mujahideen resistance movement.
Luna Stage’s artistic director Ari Laura Kreith helms her talented cast with skill, avoiding the temptation to go for the histrionic in favor of a more personal, and thus more affecting, depiction of the story. Brian Corrigan is brilliant in his depiction of an older man fighting to retain his dignity in the face of advancing age and its attendant decline. Lipica Shah’s Getee rises to the challenge of portraying a young woman navigating the demands of both modern society and an ancient religious culture to reconcile her Afghan heritage and her American upbringing. Kareem Badr shines as a Muslim who is neither a terrorist demon nor a caricature refugee but an honest man making the best of the new worlds, both physical and emotional, in which he finds himself.
Luna Stage’s production team — set designer Jen Price Fick, lighting designer Jennifer Fok, and sound designer Megan Culley — have created a fluid set that easily transforms between Nebraska and Afghanistan with just a change in a few small furniture pieces. Deborah Caney’s costumes greatly help the audience know where and when scenes are taking place.
Heartland is a double-edged title for the play. It refers to the center of the United States as a geographical area. But it also refers to the land where one’s heart lies, that place where one feels a sense of belonging and rightness. Both meanings are displayed in this thoughtful and emotional play. It is a privilege to watch fine actors at work in such a well written and well directed theatre piece. You owe it to yourselves to travel to the Heartland.