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September 4, 2014

Theatre review: 'Human Terrain' deftly handles sensitive cultural issues

The gray areas of life often expand during times of war, and the new play "Human Terrain" explores sensitive cultural issues that test black-and-white mind-sets.

Written by Midwestern playwright Jennifer Blackmer, this penetrating drama illustrates that there are no easy answers. The world premiere is being produced by Mustard Seed Theatre as its eighth season opener. MST, at Fontbonne University, specializes in presenting works either faith-based or about social justice.

A strong cast guides us through a complex tale that unfolds in flashback, beginning with Spring 2008, when a civilian scientist, employed by a government contractor, is accused of treason. During the Iraq War, her friendship with a local woman has come under fire after a bombing in Fallujah.

She must explain her actions and reflect upon the consequences when grilled by tough by-the-book interrogator Kate (Dawn Campbell).

Mabry (Melissa Gerth) is an anthropologist sent the year before to map the Human Terrain System, an actual program designed by the Army to help the U.S. understand cultural and social differences when Americans are fighting on foreign soil.

After a rocky start, she is able to gain valuable insight from Adiliah (Wendy Greenwood) into Muslim customs. Take for instance the veil. What we interpret as oppression is considered a symbol of religious piety by her.

The pair superbly convey their characters' tentative attempts at understanding, and the humane connection between people in spite of different philosophies.

Even though she is an academic, Mabry is expected to follow military orders, and is under the command of Capt. Alford (B. Weller), a typical no-nonsense officer. They develop a relationship that works for them.

Detty (Taylor Campbell), a career-minded soldier, is her field companion. In small roles are John Clark as Harrison, an American soldier, and Antonio Mosley as Kemal, a young Iraqi insurgent.

The play reiterates that enlightment comes from hard-earned lessons, as the Americans try to gain our sympathies while the Iraqis want us to understand their myriad of feelings -- suspicious, resentment, distrust.

Religious conflicts and peace-keeping missions are not solved simply. The play emphasizes bridge-building efforts are complicated, especially with such a wide socio-cultural divide.

Mabry is a noble yet naive cultural advisor, and that character has a tendency to preach as she gains hands-on knowledge. Did she cross the line or was it part of her duties? Gerth convinces us her heart and mind made the right decision.

Weller, a veteran character actor, perfectly embodies a military man trying to do the right thing, while Campbell is heart-wrenching as the good guy with dreams as big as his patriotism.

The outstanding cast capably fleshes out their characters to be more dimensional than customary stereotypes. However, it is Wendy Greenwood's dignity as Adiliah that will stay with you -- a proud Iraqi woman trying to hold on to her identity in a chaotic situation.

This work of art, although at times dense, ultimately illuminates centuries-old conundrums in a riveting contemporary setting.

Tautly directed by Lori Adams, the show was staged to be thought-provoking and spark debates afterward.

For those wanting to know more about the Human Terrain System, visit the website:

For those who would like to know more about international culture, a free discussion on "Choices: Women and the Veil" will take place at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in Fontbonne University's Fine Arts Theatre. An RSVP is requested due to limited seating. Call 314-719-8060.

"Human Terrain"

Who: Mustard Seed Theatre

When: Thursdays-Sundays through Sept. 14

(Note: Thursdays is "Pay What You Can/Pay With a Can")

Where: Fontbonne University, 680 Wydown Blvd., Clayton, Mo.

Tickets: 314-719-8060

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