By E.A. Swarts
If discussions of Bush-era politics and morality seem neither relevant nor necessary in our current world, think again. San Francisco Playhouse SandBox Series‘ production of A White Girl’s Guide to International Terrorism shows these issues still offer fertile ground to plow.
The production tells the story of Blaze, a bright, free-thinking, white girl from Louisiana who finds an unexpected way out of her trailer park when she falls prey to an ISIS recruiter and decides to fly to Syria. No doubt, her journey must be viewed through the lens of our nation’s current dystopia, where the “American Dream” seems out of reach for many young people like Blaze. But despite being staged in the present time, this production’s tone and ultimate takeaways root it in moral issues that characterized the so-called “War on Terror” during the early millennium.
Written by Chelsea Marcantel, A White Girl’s Guidewas commissioned by Artistic Director Bill English in the first of a five-year, 20 play commission program. Smartly directed by Morgan Green, it stars Isabel Langen as Blaze, a high school senior, who escapes her dead-end surroundings through acting out stories of female saints on her YouTube channel. Unbeknownst to her, the vulnerability and anger she expresses on YouTube make her a ripe target for a shadowy ISIS recruiter played by Liz Sklar. While the recruitment unfolds, an FBI agent played by Mohammad Shehata lectures the audience about how ISIS seduces American citizens such as Blaze. It is the explosive, final scene between Sklar and Shehata—complete with a good, old fashioned twist—that finally illustrates playwright Marcantel’s real point, and places Blaze’s identity and town at the center of the War on Terror.
The production and Langen are at their best when Blaze is filming her YouTube channel. Maya Linke and Wolfgang Wachalovsky’s respective
scenic and projection designs harness the feel of multimedia technology without losing the immediacy of live performance. And Langen’s ability to lose herself in multiple characters at once gives show stopping depth and dimension to her character. In fact, the entire acting ensemble shines with fine performances, and the direction, lighting, and set design are well above average.
Unfortunately, the script, at times, feels like a pizza with too many toppings. In an attempt to weave together global climate change, the opioid epidemic, spirituality, mental health, racism, sexism, and the wealth gap, playwright Marcantel’s portrayal of Blaze’s trailer park over-illustrates misery and overlooks resilience. For example, issues around economics and poverty become muddled when Blaze’s mother,played by Arwen Anderson, evicts Blaze on her eighteenth birthday to make up for no longer receiving child support. Blaze’s mother justifies the decision by saying she is “pushing the baby bird out of the nest” in order to save her. However, Blaze and her mother are hard- working, resourceful women who care for each other. Blaze has a job and motivation. Under these circumstances, struggling families share resources rather than split them. Why not ask Blaze to pay rent instead of leave?
That said, the script remains relevant and absorbing. In a time when the nation’s moral and political landscape can easily make us prisoners of the moment, if not the government, stories like A White Girl’s Guide remain important. They just may help us find our own way to heroism and redemption.
A White Girl’s Guide to International Terrorism runs through March 2nd
at the San Francisco Playhouse.
Photos by Jessica Palopoli
For more information and tickets, go to the San Francisco Playhouse website