Dr. Harold Banks has a guilty secret.
The renowned Afghan scholar and retired professor at the University of Nebraska lives in Omaha, the “heartland” of America, with his beloved adopted daughter, Getee. Orphaned in Afghanistan, Getee yearns to return to her birth home both to reconnect with her biological roots and to offer humanitarian aid by teaching children outside Kabul.
While there, she discovers a dusty box of old primary school textbooks from the 1980s with messages that promote violence, hatred, and jihad. Nazrullah (Naz), an Afghan Muslim math teacher she befriends, remembers using the same book as a child. To her horror, Getee learns that Americans authored these books.
To Harold’s deeply buried shame, he was on the CIA-led team from the University of Nebraska that created and imbedded those same propaganda-laden books in Afghanistan as part of a Cold War strategy to counteract the Soviet invasion.
Playwright Gabriel Jason Dean’s riveting and recommended new play, “Heartland,” presented by the New Repertory Theatre at the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown through Feb. 9, plunges its audience into the personal and political tornado that encircles these three people. The tormented history of the relationship between Afghanistan and the United States is the invisible but pivotal fourth character, and it casts its shadow over every scene.
The play opens as an elderly and ill Harold, wearing boxers, a tropical-themed shirt, a baseball cap and flip flops lays on a chaise dictating semi-comprehensible lecture notes into a mini-recorder. Naz (portrayed with equal parts humor and gravitas by the gifted Shawn K. Jain) shows up on Harold’s doorstep with a message from Getee (ably played by the perky Caitlin Nasema Cassidy). Harold mistakes Naz for the air conditioner repairman, setting in motion a common thread of false impression, mistaken identity, and misunderstanding that runs throughout the 105-minute intermission-less production.
Through flawlessly interwoven flashbacks and dramatized memories, the linked stories of Getee’s adoption, her nascent interest in Afghanistan, her romantic relationship with Naz, and her ultimate death in a Taliban-led attack unfold beside revelations about Harold’s unwitting complicity in creating a generation of ruthless fighters. Ironically, those children raised on Harold’s textbooks grew up to become the Taliban that killed Getee. With her blood on his hands, Harold is at last forced to face his involvement in a failed foreign policy that reaped great sorrow for so many, including himself.
The intimacy of the Mosesian Center for the Arts’ 90-seat BlackBox Theatre and Afsoon Pajoufar’s spare but effective set provides an immersive experience for the audience, which is transported from Kabul to Omaha with the flick of spotlights. When Naz moves in and takes care of Harold, their increasingly honest conversations explore the consequences of misguided US foreign policy while exposing Harold’s emotional rollercoaster ride through love, loss, denial, and pain.
“The man thought he was performing tikkun olam [healing the world] for a country he had come to love. He realizes that while he solved one problem, he created another enormous problem,” said Ken Baltin, the Needham resident whose portrayal of Harold’s inner conflict is spot-on. “How to manage these kinds of circumstances and still live with yourself is one of the main points of the play.”
“Heartland” is Dean’s second play about Afghanistan. His self-described “obsession” with the country began in 2006, when his brother-in-law’s girlfriend and her family were shot down near Kandahar while visiting her father, a civilian contractor.
“It wasn’t until I was holding my sobbing brother-in-law that a conflict in Afghanistan became personal to me,” he said by email. While researching another play set in Afghanistan, he came across several articles about these textbooks. “I knew I wanted to write about them immediately,” he added.
He hopes audiences will leave the play questioning U.S. policy of intervention in foreign countries with a critical eye to examining how Americans address their culpability when those policies fail.
“If we had the courage to face our failures, to say we are wrong, we are sorry, ask for forgiveness, and actually commit to better policy, then that would be the first step to righting these wrongs we seem to have a habit of repeating,” Dean said.
However, the more complicated issue of whether good intentions can trump unforeseen bad consequences is never quite black and white, even when the contrast between objective and outcome is stark. Despite his patriotic and selfless motives, the sympathetic Harold suffers in agony in a gray limbo area between damnation and redemption, trapped in a personal spiritual struggle.
“We made decisions that were in the best interest of the U.S. and Afghanistan,” he explains to Getee when she discovers his collusion. “Hindsight makes it easy to have morality.”
The Mosesian Center for the Arts is located at 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. Visit newrep.org or call 617-923-8487.