She's Not A Soldier - So Call Her Mabry
Dr. Mabry Hoffman is an anthropologist with the misguided and impossible task of being embedded in the US Army in Iraq following the US invasion in the early days of the Human Terrain System era (2007-2014). Playwright Jennifer Blackmer's play "Human Terrain" uses the plight of Dr. Hoffman and her efforts to understand and help the Army oxymoronically win the "hearts and minds" of Iraqi citizens amidst the United States' military occupation. Directed by Sandi Zielinski, Heartland Theatre presents this powerful critique via an interrogation of Dr. Hoffman (Mindy Smith) by an assistant attorney general, Kate, investigating a bombing incident (Tania Arazi-Coambs). Coambs' neutral and grounded portrayal of Kate helps progress the story and is present in the shadows throughout the play - the adjudicating interrogator - while with the audience also observing Dr. Hoffman's story.
The Heartland Theatre stage has been turned into a hauntingly monochromatic desert scene, with creative utilization of simple props to facilitate our journey through Dr. Hoffman's recollections of her assignment in the heart of Iraq and her engagements with various military personnel and Iraqi civilians. Because her task is overtly non-military, Dr. Hoffman endeavors to impress upon all she engages with that she is not a soldier - she is simply Mabry. Despite her efforts to connect less formally with the military and more intimately with the civilians, there is great tension and conflict on both fronts.
Representing the military perspective are three soldiers of varying age, rank and temperament. Dave Lemmon powerfully portrays the most senior ranking officer, Captain William Alford. David Ward plays the more experienced and jaded ("we are trained to shoot haj's"), Jake Harrison. While Adam Alexander is the still idealistic Cal Detty, who admires Dr. Hoffman and tries to walk the thin line of dutifully and within protocol protecting Mabry while bending some rules to aid her work. The three of them embody the complexity - and perhaps the impossibility - of striving to find peace while wielding a gun. Fortunately, the guns used on set - while menacing and evoking fear and tension are clearly props with orange tips, and are never aimed directly at another cast member or the audience. Director Zielinski utilized not just a fight choreographer but also movement choreographer and an Arabic linguistic expert for enhancing the effect and realism on the stage.
The linguistic success was most evident in the amazing portrayal of the Iraqi woman, Adiliah, by Vicky Snyder. Snyder appeared completely comfortable and natural with her Arabic lines. Adiliah, is strong, likeable, and takes Mabry (and thus the audience) to task with the preconceived assumptions of why Muslim women wear hijabs and niquabs, and the Western views of how covering is somehow submissive and weak, based on fear and lack of power. Adiliah says covering actually gives her control and is like water over her skin - she sees without being seen, knows without being known, and thus what she is is solely controlled by her. It is powerful and definitely impactful upon Mabry - both before intermission when she puts a veil on Mabry saying "you are free - your sanctuary moves with you" - and at the end, in an incredibly dramatic and beautifully staged and performed scene between the two women.
The other Iraqi role is a young man, Hemal, played dramatically and convincingly by Noe Cornejo Herrera. Herrara also speaks Arabic beautifully while having to do so in the most trying and emotionally fueled scenes.
While the audience is given translations throughout the Arabic sections in a subtle captioning, the acting and emoting is so well done that the specific word meanings are helpful but not necessary. This is such an important story and we are so pleased that a multicultural play has come to Central Illinois and has been executed so carefully and lovingly by Zielinski and her talented and energetic cast. It was a little jarring to hear some seemingly inappropriate laughter at lines referencing "enhanced interrogation" as if torture was somehow funny. However, what we saw on the Heartland stage was incredible art brought forth by incredible artists.
Hey we just saw this, and we're not crazy.
This show is special, so go see Mabry.