Gabriel Jason Dean is one of Austin’s strongest playwrights, with a body of work that emphasizes modern storytelling structure as much as it does rich characters and contemporary issues. With the premiere of his new play “Heartland” at the Vortex (playing through Feb. 9, with free tickets for federal employees) he adds to this impressive body with a smart, funny, moving drama that is as emotionally textured as it is intellectually nuanced.
“Heartland” explores the relationship between Nazrullah, an Afghani math teacher and scholar, and two Americans — a young woman named Getee who has come to teach in Afghanistan, and her adoptive father, Harold, who had once taught there but now lives in Nebraska. The story jumps back and forth in time between Nazrullah living in America with Harold, taking care of him as he faces illness, and Nazrullah’s earlier love affair with Getee in Afghanistan.
From almost the start of the play we know that Getee was killed in an attack on the school at which she and Nazrullah taught, and thus the scenes in both time periods become something of a meditation on grief and guilt. The love story between her and Nazrullah, though it unfolds as a disarmingly charming romantic comedy of sorts, is tinged by the knowledge that it will not last, while Nazrullah’s relationship with Harold is continually haunted by Getee’s absence, and the love that both men feel for her.
Where Dean really excels as a writer is in his ability to connect this tapestry of emotional character work with weightier issues, ranging from the philosophical similarities between existentialism and prayer to U.S. culpability in the violence that has plagued Afghanistan for generations. In the latter half of the play, these political connotations are brought home to the lives of the three characters, and the text’s only flaw may be that it fails to seed these issues earlier on, creating the feeling of an unexpected turn in the narrative.
It is not just the play itself that excels in the Vortex production of “Heartland,” though. Director Rudy Ramirez has crafted a deceptively simple staging that unites the past and the present in one physical space, using the transitions between scenes to smash those periods together into a haunting zone of timeless grief. Most of the production, though, smartly focuses on the dynamic performances of the three cast members.
Kacey Samiee (as Getee) and Kareem Badr (as Nazrullah) are charming and sexy, effortlessly turning intellectual conversations into heartfelt connections between two poetic souls. Lowell Bartholomee, meanwhile, is outstanding as Harold, simultaneously capturing the pomposity and ego of the important man he once was while still showcasing the slow slippage of his mental faculties.
As part of the National New Play Network’s “Rolling World Premier” series, “Heartland” is still in its earliest days, but given the richness of both its emotional depth and its sociopolitical commentary, don’t expect this to be the last you’ll hear of it.
(Update: the spelling of Kacey Samiee's last name has been corrected.)
IF YOU GO: "Heartland"
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday through Feb. 9.
Where: The Vortex, 2307 Manor Road.
Cost: $15 to $35. American Sign Language-interpreted performance on Jan. 26 is free to deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences.
Free for federal employees: During the government shutdown, the Vortex is offering free tickets to federal employees and their families with federal ID or proof of employment. Make a reservation by emailing email@example.com or calling 512-478-5282. Patrizi’s Italian Food Truck outside the theater also is offering a 20 percent discount on food for federal workers.
MORE ARTS: Moontower Comedy Festival: Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, ‘Schitt’s Creek’ cast coming to Austin