The deftly written new play “Heartland” aims for your head and for your heart. It proceeds to hit both. This alternately funny and sad drama about a retired professor who’s drifting into dementia, his adopted daughter from Afghanistan, and her friend has opened in an impeccable production from InterAct Theatre, the stage company that commissioned it.
The playwright, Gabriel Jason Dean, creates a story set in two disparate places — in Omaha, where the retired prof still teaches a literature course in the English department, and in Afghanistan, where his 29-year-old daughter goes to teach girls English and to explore her own roots. She’s named Getee, and was adopted by the professor from an orphanage in Afghanistan after her parents died in an air strike.
Now, she herself is dead, the victim of an apparent Taliban attack on the school, and the professor — slowly deteriorating mentally and physically — wastes away as he mourns her and tries desperately to create his next lecture.
Into his life comes a young man named Nazrullah, a math teacher from Getee’s school. He’s traveled at great risk (and with doctored papers) to the United States, and carries with him a precious book the professor had lent his daughter: a first-edition printing of “The Old Man and the Sea” signed by Ernest Hemingway.
The story, told with flashbacks to Getee and Nazrullah as they begin to know each other in Afghanistan, largely involves the relationship between the two men: Nazrullah decides to look after the crusty professor, not always with the man’s thanks. But the plot is just the framework for many themes the playwright artfully explores through the characters — mainly the meaning of struggle, including the struggle Muslims have when trying to explain the teachings of Islam to the West.
The play also explores the power of literature (Getee was using Anne Frank’s diary to teach about both English and hope), the dynamics of prayer, the imprint of our different cultures on us and on others — even the moral question of working with the CIA to turn young Afghans against their Russian occupiers.
This is a lot to ask of a play, but Gabriel Jason Dean is as much a master weaver as he is a skilled storyteller. He’s also fortunate to have a production directed with smooth clarity by Evren Odcikin and three fabulous actors who understand every facet of the characters they build — the remarkable Tim Moyer as the professor and Nazli Sarpkaya and Yousof Sultani as Getee and Nazrullah.
Among their achievements — especially for Sultani, whose character has many foreign-language lines — is a seeming fluency in Dari, one of the major languages spoken in Afghanistan. It’s beautiful to hear on stage, as is the play.
“Heartland,” produced by InterAct Theatre, runs through April 21 at the Proscenium Theatre at the Drake Apartments on South Hicks Street. (Hicks Street runs to the side of the Drake Apartments, on Spruce Street between 15th and 16th streets).