There’s no doubting the timeliness of Selina Fellinger’s play, Faceless. In a world premiere directed by BJ Jones now running at Northlight Theatre, the 22-year-old’s play examines a variety of topics: religious freedom, the tenets of Islam, and what constitutes the face of terrorism.
Faceless details the court battle between 18-year-old Susie Glenn and Claire Fathi, her prosecutor. Both are practicing Muslims, although Susie’s interpretations of her faith are largely based on internet research and online discussions with a mysterious man named Reza, who conspires to recruit Susie for ISIS. Claire’s role as a Muslim prosecutor in an anti-terrorism case quickly garners much media attention, as she suddenly finds herself defending her faith amidst misinterpretation and death threats.
As Claire, Susaan Jashmidi carefully navigates a mixture of outrage, pride, and competition in her quest for justice. Claire’s awareness that this case is bigger than herself is palpable throughout Jashmidi’s performance. In Susie Glenn, Fellinger has created a portrait of a teenager yearning for something larger than herself. While Lindsay Stock’s portrayal of Susie hits some of these notes, at times her breathy performance feels too consumed by needing to illustrate the play’s stakes.
Jones’ direction articulates these stakes well enough, keeping Fellinger’s script moving at a fast pace. His simple staging is reinforced by the unobtrusiveness of John Culbert’s set, which allows the action to quickly switch among prosecution, defense, and flashbacks of Susie’s online interactions with Reza.
These Facebook and Twitter chats are supplemented by projection design by Stephan Mazurek, rendering the digital realm of social media with colorful emojis and a man shrouded in shadow. While there is an added reality to witnessing their conversations unfold through projections–Susie’s steady increase in followers after utilizing the hashtag #ISIS is particularly chilling–their disappearance as these scenes progress makes for a slightly inconsistent conceit. After all, with Susie typing away at her laptop, it’s not as if we don’t understand that she’s speaking to someone online. Committing to either projecting these chats for the conversations’ entirety or eschewing projections altogether would make their dissipation in the middle of scenes less distracting.
The work of an emerging playwright, Faceless illustrates Fellinger’s potential in spades. Bolstered by a capable cast and sensible direction, the piece breezily covers a swath of complex subjects. There is great thematic depth and maturity to its balanced exploration of terrorism and Islam at a time fraught with incendiary and ill-informed rhetoric. Even better, Fellinger’s tightly wound courtroom drama is injected with a healthy dose of wit, distinguishing the narrative from more contrived television procedurals.
Faceless runs 85 minutes at Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie, Wednesdays through Sundays through March 4. Tickets are $30-$81 and can be purchased online, at the Northlight box office, by calling 847-673-6300.