Near the end of 5th Wall Theatre’s production of “The Human Terrain,” a hard-nosed interrogator working with the U.S. Attorney General’s office states, “There are gray areas here.” Oh my, are there ever. And the depth and intensity of the moral ambiguities served up by this smart, engrossing drama make it a true stage triumph.
“Terrain” had its world premiere last summer in St. Louis and marks the latest attempt by an American artist to come to grips with the still-incendiary topic of the Iraq war. Penned by Jennifer Blackmer, the play dives into the vagaries of the conflict with a keen sense of politics but without ever losing sight of what makes theater soar: intriguing characters. In my view, it’s the most nuanced, insightful, engaging explication of the topic so far.
The action centers on three women -- complex, diligent and intelligent women, another reason to tout this story -- and director Carol Piersol has cast a few of Richmond’s finest actresses to bring it to life. McLean Jesse plays Mabry Hoffman, an anthropologist who volunteers in 2007 to assist in the Human Terrain System, a real-life initiative by the U.S. Army that embeds social scientists with American troops in an effort to gain cultural understanding of Iraqis as part of “winning hearts and minds.”
The play starts with a bound, hooded Hoffman being brought in front of interrogator Kate Moore (Katrinah Carol Lewis), having been accused of treason and espionage. Subsequent flashbacks lay out the events that led to Hoffman’s predicament.
Her problems begin with a chance encounter with Adiliah (Sara Heifetz), an Iraqi educated in America, with a son the same age as Hoffman’s. While their friendship grows, complications intensify, ultimately endangering Hoffman’s budding mentorship of young Private Detty (Daniel Kunkel) and the marginal support of her unit’s CO, Captain Alford (Dean Knight). Tensions mount after she successfully handles an attempted suicide bombing by Kemal (Saleh Ismael), leading to an eventual explosion in many senses of the word.
Jesse delivers an absolute tour-de-force performance, with the flashback structure having her pivot from terrified suspect to jaunty new recruit in the blink of an eye. She expertly navigates the various relationships built throughout the show, from begrudging subordinate to reluctant mentor to cultural attaché. She's matched by Heifetz, first seen veiled only with her expressive eyes available to convey Adiliah’s many emotions. Lewis mostly propels the plot with her interrogation, until she reveals different shades of her character late in the show.
Both Knight and Kunkel make their soldiers refreshingly three-dimensional. Knight, in particular, ably projects the knotty problems posed by being a commander in Iraq.
Piersol has directed this intricate dance of politics and culture with bracing assurance. This show offers no easy answers, and Piersol doesn’t soft-pedal any interaction. The confidence with which the actors spout numerous lines in Arabic is just one of many convincing components (coached by Ismael, a 16-year-old former Iraqi). The fast-moving action plays out on Tennessee Dixon’s intimate and clever set without confusion, with some clarifying assistance from lighting designer Erin Barclay.
After two hours of captivating scenes, “Terrain’s” ending comes off as a bit of a missed opportunity, but it’s consistent with a play that digs into the gray areas of a complex situation and strikes gold in the form of fascinating, enlightening, must-see theater.
“The Human Terrain” plays through April 11 at HATTheatre, 1124 Westbriar Drive in Richmond’s West End. Tickets available at 5thwalltheatre.org.