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Fine acting, contrived premise in ‘White Girl’s Guide’

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Arwen Anderson, left, and Isabel Langen play mother and daughter in “A White Girl’s Guide to International Terrorism.” (Courtesy Jessica Palopoli)

What might compel a white American teenage girl to join terrorists in the Middle East?

That’s the question that playwright Chelsea Marcantel examines in the jokily titled but deadly serious “A White Girl’s Guide to International Terrorism,” commissioned by San Francisco Playhouse and premiering in its new-plays Sandbox Series.

Technical issues on opening night notwithstanding, the production, directed by Morgan Green, is strong, with across-the-board fine acting.

And the subject is timely and intriguing.

But the writer’s hand is too obtrusive.

High school senior Blaze (a wonderfully convincing Isabel Langen) feels hopeless about her future.

No wonder: She lives in a trailer with her mother in a dying Southern town that’s ravaged by opioids.

Working part-time at the Dairy Freeze, she has no expectation of a better job, college or escape.

The boy she loves (Davied Morales) invites her to the prom — but he isn’t in love with her, and besides, he’s leaving for college soon.

And now that Blaze is turning 18, her father will no longer pay child support, so her mother unceremoniously kicks her out of the house to fend for herself.

Blaze fantasizes becoming a “warrior saint,” and creates dramatic scenarios on her YouTube channel (which the audience sees on a big screen), impersonating the historical figures she admires; her best friend, Rowena (Neiry Rojo), seeks spiritual fulfillment in other ways.

The paths of the two girls are diverging.

Does all this add up to a willingness to follow the instructions of an anonymous email correspondent, an American woman (Liz Sklar) and Islamic convert who moved abroad and urges Blaze to join the “Sisterhood of the Unafraid”?

“How can I be a saint if I don’t fight in a holy war?” Blaze wonders.

Some American girls do indeed get successfully recruited by terrorists, but Marcantel’s scenario feels contrived, with too many overly dramatic circumstances piling up to thwart the preternaturally smart and imaginative Blaze.

And her mother seems like a playwright’s construct (no fault of fine actor Arwen Anderson), what with her overuse of the word ain’t and her supposedly no-nonsense parenting.

Then there’s the too self-consciously shoehorned-in, interwoven monologue by an FBI agent (Mohammed Shehata) explaining, to a court of law, the necessity to ferret out, presumably by any means possible, potential white girl recruits to terrorist organizations.

Tightened up, and with a lighter authorial touch, Blaze’s journey would be more believable.

REVIEW
A White Girl’s Guide to International Terrorism
Presented by San Francisco Playhouse
Where: Creativity Theater, 221 Fourth St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; closes March 2
Tickets: $30
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org

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