“Our entire season is exploring this idea of how we have conversations across cultural divides, which I feel is one of those fundamental things that we need to explore as a culture right now,” explained Ari Laura Kreith, who has been the Artistic Director at Luna Stage in West Orange since February 2018. She’s discussing the theatre’s latest work, the regional premiere of “Heartland” by Gabriel Jason Dean, which runs from April 4th to May 5th.
“Heartland” is about a young mathematician carrying a copy of The Old Man and the Sea from Afghanistan to Omaha, Nebraska. He arrives on the doorstep of retired literature professor Dr. Harold Banks. Across the world in Maidan Shar, Harold's adopted daughter teaches The Diary of Anne Frank and finds herself unexpectedly in love. The play shows what it means to go from the heart of one country to the heart of another. It explores the uncertain terrain of love, moral responsibility and what it truly means to care for one another.
“One of the interesting things about the play to me is that it’s about discovering that somebody you love made a choice that you don’t agree with,” continued Kreith. “How do you come to terms with that? How do you navigate that? I think those are often the hardest conversations to have, because it’s easy to judge or demonize somebody because of an action. But when you know that person and know that their heart is good, how do you use that as a stepping stone to engage with moral questions? How does that teach you about the complexity of the world?”
The production stars Kareem Badr, Brian Corrigan and Lipica Shah. Ari Laura Kreith directs the play, which features dialogue in English and Dari (one of the languages spoken in Afghanistan). The theatre was fortunate to have an actor who already knew Dari, as well as transliterations from the playwright and help from a local woman who was born in Afghanistan.
“It's such a rare gift as an actor to get to tell a story that is both global and so intensely personal in scope,” said Kareem Badr. “I know that this play is going to tug on the heartstrings of our audiences and I truly can't wait to experience it with them.”
It’s easy to see the name Afghanistan and assume it’s a play about war or politics, but the playwright has said he sought to create a play that’s more personal than political - a chamber play about people living out unfortunate political decisions. Nevertheless, having Afghanistan as one of the locales will likely bring up thoughts of the war with the audience.
Sometimes it is hard to remember that an entire generation has grown up with the United States fighting over there. Kreith says that the war story in “Heartland” is set in the present and deals more about reconciling past actions with present consequences.
“I do think it’s easy here to be insulated from the reality of our impact on other countries and cultures,” said Kreith. “I think it’s very important that we do embrace that understanding of our impact on people throughout the world and that our actions resonate across the globe.
“There’s the whole idea of how do we like to think of ourselves? We like to think of ourselves as the country that keeps peace rather than the country that is at war; yet there are so many ways we are sort of disavowing our identity. I think ‘Heartland’ is not political in the sense that it’s not a play that takes sides. It’s a play that attempts to deepen empathy and ask questions about who we are and who we want to be in the world.”
Lipica Shah, who has worked with Kreith for about a decade in eight previous productions, believes “’Heartland’ is about the struggle to forgive and be forgiven: what does it mean to be complicit? Can intent be noble if the resulting actions cause pain? Is there a way to truly understand consequences before being forced to live with them?”
Ultimately, “this is a play about acceptance,” said Brian Corrigan. “Truth, [Harold] believes, is chaos. We can’t make sense of it. We can only learn to accept it, and each other.”
One of the nice aspects of the play is how it seeks to go beyond the stereotypes of what we think of people from the Middle East. Kreith describes it as providing actors with three-dimensional roles that reflect the fact that everyone has a range of life experiences and human emotions, even if those characteristics are rarely shown in mainstream works.
“At a time in which almost all the imagery of the Middle East and Islam is negative and one-dimensional and othering, it is incredibly refreshing to see Afghans portrayed as fully realized humans subverting stereotypes,” said Shah.
The concept of portraying people from around the world is nothing new to Kreith, who is the founder and Artistic Director of Theatre 167, a company born in a community where 167 different languages are spoken. They are a multicultural, multilingual ensemble dedicated to creating imaginative and deeply collaborative plays that explore cultural complexities. That mission is something she brought to Luna as well.
“I think my goal in coming here was to take inspiration from the way that Luna exists at the intersection of so many communities and cultures,” explained Kreith. “It really allows us to become a gathering place for conversation and a place for bridge building. It’s been exciting to feel that happening; to be catalyzing meaningful conversation and developing an identity of the place people go to grapple with things about our world that are complicated. That’s what I want to have happen at Luna - to inspire those conversations.”
“Heartland” is the perfect play for that goal. Kreith hopes the play inspires people to be willing to listen to the experiences of other people whether that means the person across the street or somebody on the other side of the globe. And not just to listen, but to try to understand their perspective and be able to honestly struggle with the consequences of our own actions.
“I think that we, as humans, sort of embrace our intention and say this is what I wanted to happen and therefore I am a good person,” explained Kreith. “I certainly value intention, but I think there should be moments of looking and saying, ‘what have I actually done?’ And ‘how do I take responsibility for the ways that I have served people and the ways I haven’t?’ That sounds dark and I don’t mean it to be dark, but I think we can always be better. And it takes understanding the ways we have not always succeeded as humans to figure out what the next action - the better action - might be.”
Luna Stage presents “Heartland” from April 4 - April 28 at 555 Valley Road in West Orange. For more information or to purchase tickets visit www.lunastage.org