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Datebook: 'Human Terrain' is about three women’s intersecting lives, with war in the background

"Human Terrain" must close Sunday at Heartland Theater. The play is based on a real initiative that deployed civilian social scientists to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Jesse Folks
Heartland Theatre
"Human Terrain" will be performed this weekend at Heartland Theatre in Normal. The play is based on a real initiative that deployed civilian social scientists to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Heartland Theatre closes its latest production this weekend, a rendition of Jennifer Blackmer’s 2014 play, “Human Terrain,” based on the real Human Terrain System, an initiative that placed social scientists in military combat units in an effort to understand the culture of the regions where they were deployed.

The play takes place in the recent past, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. But director Sandra Zielinski said the play is not directly about the war.

“The pith of it isn’t about war,” Zielinski said. “It is about the human condition and the relationship between three women.”

Those three women are Dr. Mabry Hoffman (Mindy Smith), an anthropologist sent to Iraq on assignment; Kate (Tania Arazi-Coambs), an investigator questioning Mabry after she returns to the United States; and Adilah (Vicky Snyder), an Iraqi woman who initially is one of Mabry's research subjects.

“It is about two people (of) different circumstances — how alike they are and how different they are, and what Mabry, the lead character, learns about herself, about war, about the government and life itself,” said Zielinski. “The crux is the relationship; the surround is war.”

A central point of the play is a conversation between Mabry and Adilah about veiling. Adilah is a hijabi woman and Mabry, an American who once lived in Saudi Arabia, sees the veil as oppression.

Zielinski points to text from the play as illuminating these differences: “One of the lines in the play is, ‘What do you think when you see a person who is veiled?’ The answer, by Kate, is, ‘I don’t think anything.’ Then Mabry says, ‘Now, you’re lying.’ We do have thoughts about what that means and, for many of the audience members, it’s oppression. But Adilah has a different point of view.”

A complicated rehearsal process included language training for three of the actors, who speak Arabic in the play. In his Heartland debut, Noe Cornejo Herrera plays a young boy conflicted about the war on many fronts. His dialogue is entirely in Arabic, projected in English subtitles onto Curtis Trout’s set.

“It is not an easy language to learn,” said Zielinski, adding the cast worked with a dialect coach who was part of one of the original versions of the play. “But when you listen to them, it sounds like second nature.”

Zielinski said she is grateful for the opportunity to work for Heartland Theatre, especially given the ongoing pandemic. “The plays that I’ve been given to work on are absolutely beautiful plays, with heart and meaning," she said. "And for the actors, they are joyful to be back on the stage."

The final weekend of “Human Terrain” is Friday and Saturday at Heartland Theatre, 1110 Douglas St., Normal. General admission is $17. For tickets and more information, visit heartlandtheatre.org.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.