Review: Mustard Seed's 'Human Terrain' Explores New Territory

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

Plays and movies that revolve around military conflicts in the Middle East are nothing new, but playwright Jennifer Blackmer has found a new way to explore these violent clashes of culture with “Human Terrain,” now having its world premiere at Mustard Seed Theatre. The play tells the story of a female anthropologist embedded with an army unit in Fallujah and the harsh consequences that arise when she befriends an Iraqi woman. The strong story, insightful performances and simple but highly effective set make for a provocative and stylish evening of theater.

Wendy Greenwood and Melissa Gerth in "Human Terrain" Courtesy of Mustard Seed Theatre

Wendy Greenwood and Melissa Gerth in “Human Terrain”
Courtesy of Mustard Seed Theatre

Melissa Gerth is Mabry, a young, idealistic civilian anthropologist who arrives in Fallujah as part of the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System—an actual government program that seeks to “improve the military’s ability to understand the highly complex local socio-cultural environment in the areas where they are deployed,” according the HTS website. Eventually, the military hopes to utilize HTS before they invade, but here, the conflict is already underway. Hey, what could go wrong?

Mabry’s ability to gain acceptance among the locals is first hampered by the large and in-charge Captain Alford (B. Weller), who first insists she wears fatigues, then—due to the gruesome murder of another HTS anthropologist in a different Iraqi city—that she travel with an armed escort. Although it’s hard to befriend locals when one is bedecked in military issue clothing and a guy with a big gun in your shadow, Mabry manages to establish an uneasy and mutually suspicious friendship-of-sorts with Adilah (Wendy Greenwood), an Iraqi woman whose cautious nature masks her feelings and intentions as surely as her veil masks her face.

Wendy Greenwood and Antonio Mosley in "Human Terrain" Courtesy of Mustard Seed Theatre

Wendy Greenwood and Antonio Mosley in “Human Terrain”
Courtesy of Mustard Seed Theatre

As the situation in Fallujah escalates and dramatic events unfold, Mabry’s actions and her relationship with Adilah come under scrutiny, resulting in charges of aiding and abetting the enemy. The play opens with Mabry being interrogated. The story of why she is being interrogated is told through flashbacks facilitated by John Stark’s clever set—the interrogation room is on a raised platform that rolls downstage for important interrogation scenes and then back upstage to make room for flashback scenes. Lori Adams’ deft direction embraces Blackmer’s flashback structure like she has been given the center piece to a jigsaw puzzle, which she then assembles piece by piece and scene by scene until the final picture of the puzzle is revealed.

Gerth captures the gradual hardening of Mabry, going from wide-eyed exuberance and optimism—she really thinks she is helping the native citizens—to a lame deer caught in the crosshairs of a system that swallows human souls whole. Weller as Capt. Alford is a by-the-book Army guy, who nevertheless has a compassionate and caring side. But when push comes to suicide bombing, he goes all Army, and part of the beauty of this play is that you get where he’s coming from. It’s not clear what the correct course of action should be. Everybody is right, and everybody is wrong.

Greenwood gives a smooth-as-glass performance as Adilah. When Mabry asks her why she allows herself to be forced to wear a veil, Adiliah explains the other side of the equation. Essentially, her response is “maybe I want to wear a veil, did you ever think of that?” It points out how we expect every other society to be like us, dress like us, and think like us, and if you don’t, you are simply wrong. My way or the highway. Dawn Campbell plays the interrogator Kate in the manner of a single-minded lawyer, and Taylor Campbell plays soldier Detty with  down-home, small town innocence. Rounding out the cast is John Clark as soldier Harrison, and Antonio Mosley as the young boy Kemal.

Mustard Seed Theatre has a reputation for presenting well-staged, well-produced, meaningful scripts, and always with heightened performances. “Human Terrain” fits the mold.

“Human Terrain” continues through Sept. 14. For tickets and information, call 314-719-8060 or visit the Mustard Seed Theatre website.

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