Selina Fillinger, a recent graduate of Northwestern University, is an exceptionally skilled young playwright with an obvious flair for provocation. So it is easy to see why BJ Jones, Northlight Theatre’s artistic director, committed himself to giving her play, “Faceless” its world premiere, and has even directed it himself.
When: Through March 4
Where: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
Tickets: $30 – $81
Run time: 85 minutes, with no intermission
On opening night the play was greeted with applause as well as some audible (and rather unusual) booing. I could have gone either way — applauding for the sharpness of the writing and vivid performances, while objecting to the all too fashionable forms of manipulation at work in the storytelling. And to be sure, it is a story whose topicality certainly took wing in the wake of President Trump’s ban on travelers from seven nations in the Middle East.
The plot unfolds on two sides of a legal case: Susie Glenn (Lindsay Stock), is a lonely 18-year-old girl — a “straight A” student from a white working-class family, whose mother died recently, and whose father, Alan (Joe Dempsey), though horrified by his daughter’s actions, is committed to her defense. As it turns out, Susie is accused of “conspiring to commit acts of terrorism” in league with the ISIS-connected boyfriend/fiance she met on the Internet. Unbeknownst to her father (but not to the F.B.I.) she was fully planning to fly overseas to meet this man in person, having undergone what was a rather perfunctory “conversion” to Islam.
Though smart as a whip, Susie also is deeply naive, with a rabid mix of amorous and political passions. Not surprisingly, her lawyer (Ross Lehman), is a Jewish man in late middle age with children of his own, and he has more or less taken pity on her situation, viewing her as a lost soul who should be spared a draconian sentence.
On the other side of the case is Scott Bader (Timothy Edward Kane), a politically ambitious prosecutor (and unrepentant sexist) with a brilliant sense of how to play the game. He engages Claire Fathi (Susaan Jamshidi), a Harvard grad and practicing Muslim who wears a hijab, to lead the prosecution — and to be the face of a right-thinking American Muslim whose very presence will deny bias in the case, while also winning her significant attention.
So the questions come fast and furiously: Will Glenn’s apparent vulnerability, and frail if determined demeanor, make any difference in this case, particularly since she clearly was aware of what she was doing, and will not apologize for it? And for just how long will Fathi, who knows she is being used by Bader (they even engage in a very funny exchange about the pronunciation of the word Muslim), be able to carry on her prosecution of this young woman who claims to be a member of her own faith, even if her planned acts of terror are repellent?
The arguments — personal, legal, political — swing back and forth, with equal doses of extremism and feminism, plus a heated competition between the two male lawyers, who, as it happens, know and respect each other.
Pale and thin as a reed, but with just the right steely edge, Stock captures the dual seductions that have radicalized her so profoundly. Jamshidi is a powerful presence who neatly suggests the many different pushes and pulls at work in her character. The ever-superb Kane nails Bader’s wonderfully slick and opportunistic nature (and you have to wonder if Fillinger was playing on his name shared by a certain Supreme Court justice). Lehman is at the top of his game as the man who perhaps acts more out of his paternal empathy than any liberal agenda. And Dempsey gives us the hapless father caught in the middle of the same terrible morass facing any parent so dramatically blindsided by a child.
Of course what we are left with on some level here is a certain apologia for the terrorist impulse. And that, no doubt, was the cause of the booing.