In New Rep’s ‘Heartland,’ two strangers meet, and worlds collide
When playwright Gabriel Jason Dean began writing “Heartland,” he only knew the play would end with an American and an Afghan praying and that it would involve a Hemingway scholar.
“Every play is a puzzle where we don’t have all the pieces,” Dean says about “Heartland,” which is being produced at New Repertory Theatre in Watertown as a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere. “That’s where the audience comes in. They have to be complicit in the story.”
“Heartland” juggles pieces that, at first, seem to have nothing in common. In the Nebraska home of a retired literature professor who specializes in the work of Ernest Hemingway, an Afghan refugee arrives, claiming to be a friend of the professor’s adopted daughter, who was killed while teaching in Afghanistan. From there a story unfolds of misguided decisions, unexpected alliances, and the weight of responsibility and regret.
Dean says he became fascinated with the relationship between the United States and Afghanistan when an American contractor and his family whom he knew were killed in Afghanistan.
“I started researching this long, tortured history the US has with Afghanistan, and the repercussions that has had on the people there,” he says.
He discovered news reports revealing that in the 1980s and ’90s, the United States had published and distributed textbooks promoting violence and militant Islamic teachings to encourage resistance to the Soviet occupation. While they may have been taught the fundamentals of reading and mathematics, they also steeped a generation in violence. Dean says that’s when he began seeing a connection.
“But it was an issue, not a play,” he says. “I’m interested in people, not issues.”
What emerged, says director Bridget Kathleen O’Leary, was a powerful conflict between a father and a daughter, and a story of two worlds colliding.
One of Dean’s requests for productions of his play is that the audience members be able to see one another. Scenic designer Afsoon Pajoufar says her spare set in the BlackBox Theater at the Mosesian Center for the Arts creates a space that brings the audience into the action.
“There’s a fascinating balance in the play,” she says, “not only between scenes that take place in both Nebraska and Afghanistan, but in scenes that take place in the mind of the protagonist. We have to help the audience feel they are there, no matter where they are.”
As the story moves backward and forward in time, O’Leary says it heightens a feeling of being haunted by the past. “It’s less of a memory play and more of a story of a guy who is trapped in purgatory,” she says. “What I love about Gabe’s script is that there is no redemption. We have to sit in our discomfort.”
Field of teens and dreams
Two hundred young women showed up at an indoor soccer arena in Quincy a few months ago, hoping to score a spot on the Wolves. But this wasn’t a U17 girls soccer team; the tryouts were for playwright Sarah DeLappe’s “The Wolves,” a coming-of-age story that was a 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist. Auditions required some soccer ball-handling skills as well as acting chops.
“Normally, we might get between 20 and 40 actors who reach out to us about auditioning,” says A. Nora Long, who is directing the Lyric Stage Company production that runs through Feb. 3. “But athleticism and an ability to be a team player are so crucial for this play, we decided to open the opportunity to everyone, and hold the tryouts on an indoor soccer field, with an experienced soccer coach to run them through some drills.”
Long says the coach helped her winnow the group to a more manageable number of young women to read for the roles, but she says the group she cast is made up of “some very experienced soccer players, others who played as kids and the rest never played before but jumped right in.”
All the action of “The Wolves” takes place as the team members warm up before games, a total of six scenes that reveal the dreams and disappointments of a demographic seldom taken seriously onstage. Before each game, as they run through a series of calisthenics, the team members share secrets, tell goofy stories, worry about school projects, politics, and even the value of Netflix documentaries. Only one adult appears during the 90-minute play, a “soccer mom” who arrives close to the end.
“Every member of the Wolves is a complicated, nuanced individual,” Long says. “The challenge of the play is making sure each of them emerge as individuals even as they perform as a team.”
On the Lyric’s thrust stage, behind a protective netting, DeLappe’s dialogue overlaps into a babble of voices out of which emerge unique moments of vulnerability, combined with lives rich with possibility. The playwright’s skill lies in her ability to bring to life conversations that include bad jokes, complaints, gossip, and ideas while also providing insight into these teens’ not-yet-fully formed identities.
“The soccer field sets up a very specific setting that allows these adolescents to be at that pivotal moment on the edge of adulthood,” says Long. “We have a unique glimpse into who is clinging to childhood, who is ready to move forward, and who is just struggling to get through.”
For ticket information on “The Wolves,” go to www.lyricstage.com.
Presented by New Repertory Theatre. At the BlackBox Theater, Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown, Jan. 12-Feb. 9. Tickets $19-$42, 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org