Rep’s production of ‘Faceless’ is compelling and confusing

Susaan Jamshidi and Lindsay Stock in The Rep’s production of ‘Faceless.’ Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

The courtroom drama “Faceless” boasts a crackling and fast-paced script by Selina Fillinger, compelling performances by a five-member cast and fine direction by BJ Jones at the St. Louis Repertory Theatre’s Studio Theatre.

Fillinger, who is Jewish, juxtaposes two American Muslim women. Claire Fathi (played by Susaan Jamshidi in a powerful performance) is a Harvard-educated lawyer of Iranian parentage who joins in the prosecution of Susie Glenn (Lindsay Stock), a naive, trembling young woman who is seduced into joining ISIS over social media. Glenn is based on several real-life young Americans who joined or tried to join ISIS.

Claire, who wears a hijab over her father’s objections, is a symbol of how an American woman can “make it” in America by following the rules. Susie also wears a hijab but has a vocabulary sprinkled with LOL and OMG as she texts Reza, her offstage ISIS recruiter.

Fillinger forces us to see that not all Muslims are alike.  Claire knows that the senior prosecutor, Scott Bader (Michael James Reed), is cynically using her for the optics of having a Muslim woman on his team to prosecute a Muslim defendant. 

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Susie similarly resents her image being manipulated by her Jewish defense lawyer, Mark Arenberg (played superbly by Ross Lehman).

For much of the play, Claire seems embarrassed that her “sister in Islam” comes across as a petulant, retro Valley girl, spurning Susie’s attempts to reach across the table to form a bond. 

Claire’s case in some ways echoes the 1951 trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Jewish Communist couple executed for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. In that case, the Jewish prosecutor was accused of excessive zeal in his efforts to convict the couple. 

At a crucial point the play shifts from strong courtroom drama to unconvincing kumbaya exchange between the two women. Fillinger seems ambivalent about her characters, which makes these scenes and the ending feel like a cop-out.

Despite that shift, “Faceless” is first-rate for most of its 90 minutes and leaves audiences eager for future plays by the gifted playwright Fillinger.