Regional Reviews: St. Louis
But Disgraced, by Ayad Akhtar, turned out to be a scandalmonger's dream, with a script of Mamet-ian manipulation. If you'd come to that one looking for a better understanding of Islam, you'd just have to keep looking.
Flash-forward two years, and we're finally in a much better place. Faceless has some of the same bull-headed style of a Mamet drama, but playwright Selina Fillinger magically balances her story's sensationalism and topicality with genuine art and poetic stagecraft. This 85-minute courtroom drama, which debuted at Chicago's Northlight Theater in January of 2017, centers on two very different young Islamic-American women.
BJ Jones directed that original mounting, and now this St. Louis premiere too, with a lively sense of humor and drama. And though the two young women on stage initially seem to represent only extreme versions of Islam, they gradually develop great dimensionality. Eventually they must reconcile, face-to-face: one as an immovable object and the other an irresistible force. And the hammer of an unseen judge's gavel slams several of the pugnacious scenes to a sharp blackout ending, in this fast-paced hunt for home-grown terrorists.
Susaan Jamshidi is ambitious but wary as the Persian-American prosecutor Claire. She's thrust into the unenviable job of taking down the other female Muslim character, a naïve suburban Chicago girl who has (at the behest of an online recruiter) allied herself with ISIS. Ms. Jamshidi originated the role of the prosecutor in last year's debut, and fills every second on stage with insight. In fact, with only one exception, this is the same splendid, nuanced cast (and the same director, and apparently the same lighting designer too) from that world premiere.
"I worked very hard on this one," Managing Director Mark Bernstein joked afterward, as we climbed the steps up from the studio theater on opening night. As the businessman behind the Rep, he's helped keep the most respected theater in town solvent for the last 30-plus years. This time, though, the production arrived more or less intact on his doorstep.
The one change onstage is in the casting of Michael James Reed as the tough senior prosecutor. He was excellent as Claudius earlier this season in the Rep's Hamlet, and blends in seamlessly with a troupe of brash but laser-focused Windy City performers. Mr. Reed takes an obnoxious lawyer character and makes him both fierce and funny. It's the Chicago way.
Lindsay Stock is the raging adolescent fire in the midst of it all, reprising her role as 18-year-old Susie: perfectly fraught with teenage yearning and consternation, but (frankly) headed to the slammer for reasons that seemed a little elusive to this reviewer. I believe that Susie was suspected of having been inducted into ISIS, or of having links to suicide bombers and recruiters (there are multiple online chats with an ominous silhouette, complete with a chilling, electronically distorted voice). In any case, we more or less take it all for granted, based on our own vague understanding of modern "homeland security," that some law was broken. But the actual charge seems surprisingly inconsequential in this fast-paced story.
Ms. Jamshidi, as Susie's reluctant nemesis, gives a highly persuasive closing argument about the potential spread of suicide bombers to this country, as unlikely as the slender young Susie may seem in meeting that description. That's when one of the starkest, most damning elements of Faceless pops up in our own heads: in just 85 minutes we're just as ready as Susie to take up the opposite position from hersat least, in the broadest termsunder the spell of this Claire. We are ready to take stern, unthinking steps to protect society against confused teenagers. It's a bracing, unflattering look in the mirror.
Every character is polished to perfection, thanks to director Jones. Ross Lehman plays the teenager's social-justice lawyer, saying as much with his occasional silences as he does with his vocal defense. And Joe Dempsey is great as Susie's father, one of those brokenhearted, modern, crushed blue-collar type heroes, a paramedic (and, yes, I know that's not a "blue-collar" job).
The two Muslim women enter (initially) without their headscarves, right before putting them on. In that moment it's striking to see how the hijab completely alters each of them, as they step on to the stage. Likewise the two women deliver the same prayer, one in Farsi and the other in English, as punctuation at three different points in the play. And those prayers remind us, successively, of how much greater the tension, and higher the drama, has grown.
Faceless, through February 4, 2018, in the Studio Theatre of the Loretto-Hilton building, 130 Edgar Rd., on the campus of Webster University, Webster Groves MO. For more information visit www.repstl.org.
The Players (in speaking order)
Additional Production Credits