Review: “Human Terrain” (Broken Nose Theatre)

Jessamyn Fitzpatrick and Kim Boler/Photo: Matthew Freer.
Jessamyn Fitzpatrick and Kim Boler/Photo: Matthew Freer.

Show: “Human Terrain”

Company: Broken Nose Theatre

Venue: Voice of the City (3429 W Diversey Ave)

Die Roll: 6

In the last ten years, a bevy of plays have been written about war experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sometimes, these plays focus on soldiers and the sacrifices they must make. Sometimes, these plays focus on by-standers harmed by the violence of war. Sometimes these plays demonstrate the effect of war on veterans who have returned home. Broken Nose Theatre’s “Human Terrain” distinguishes itself by centering its point of view on a civilian contractor for the army.

Mabry (Kim Boler) is an anthropologist serving with a United States unit in Fallujah. When we first meet our newly graduated doctor, she is being interrogated by Kate (Jessamyn Fitzpatrick) in a shadowy detention facility. Together, the two unravel Mabry’s actions and alliances during her time on a human terrain systems team in Iraq, with a suspicious hint of reticence marking all of Mabry’s dialogue. While embedded with a combat unit, Mabry befriends her military escort Detty (Matt Singleton), a young man who appreciates her college education. And she makes strides with Adiliah (Shozzett Silva), a local woman with whom she debates the use of the hijab. The two women begin meeting secretly without Detty, and while Mabry recognizes her violation of security protocol, she feels that gaining the trust of those she came to Iraq to help is paramount. Matters grow dire when a violent incident blurs Mabry’s loyalties, causing Kate to question whether her charge is treasonous or a poor judge of character.

Playwright Jennifer Blackmer has done her homework. There is as much technical information about army regulations in this play as there is dramatic conflict. While I was never one hundred percent clear on Mabry’s ultimate anthropological goal in connecting with the people of Iraq, I appreciated how much time and effort Blackmer spent in outlining her insider-outsider status among the unit’s soldiers. Her relationship with Adiliah could have used the same attention. The two women share a lot of scenes, but I never felt their connection, because their bond never became concrete to me. The debate they have over the hijab lends thematic weight to the story, which pays off in the play’s final moments. But I failed to see the common bond uniting the women. In order for Mabry’s defiance to hold an audience member’s attention, her friendship with Adiliah requires high stakes. Once danger arrives, Mabry’s choices become distinct, personal, and fraught. But three-quarters of the play has passed by then. There is a difference between escalation of a conflict and marking time until events become complicated. More often than not, Blackmer seemed to be marking time with her female characters.

Kim Boler and Robert Koon/Photo: Matthew Freer.
Kim Boler and Robert Koon/Photo: Matthew Freer.

Though the script falters, Boler creates distinct relationships with each of her fellow cast members. Her discussions about military behavior and education with Singleton display an ease and equality that is missing from her interactions with her commanding officer, Alford, given a lot of salt by Robert Koon. She and Silva share a quiet series of scenes, and never let the theme-heavy dialogue impede their friendliness.

Director Benjamin Brownson does his best to evoke a desert feeling in the small performance space. The house is surrounded by beige cloth that represents an army tent and the color of the desert, a smart choice that doesn’t obscure the oddness of that permanent one-way mirror fixed into the back of the room. (I’m guessing this arts space is not geared specifically for theatre performances.) The sound design by Grover Holloway creates a distinct landscape, where artillery rounds and explosions are mixed with bird calls. And the mix of army uniforms and hijabs is well chosen by costume designer Moriah Lee Turner.

Broken Nose Theatre is a “pay-what-you-can” company, so it is impressive that they took on a script that requires a lot of bells and whistles for the audience to immerse themselves in the world. I applaud the company’s ambition, even if some of the production elements are hit or miss. “Human Terrain” offers a new perspective within a military narrative, one that motivates the audience to ask unique questions about American purposes abroad.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Military drama loses the audience until the stakes raise.

DICE RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”