Finding the True Zealot in Theresa Rebeck's New Play at South Coast Rep

Boo-hoo, women are oppressed by cruel, violent men. They're oppressed in ass-backwards Muslim countries by having to cover their heads in public and getting raped and beaten for any number of reasons. They're oppressed in America by a patriarchal system that meddles with their choices over their own bodies, prevents them from receiving the same pay as men, and makes them feel degraded for not skipping dessert.


Just anticipating, folks, the reaction to Zealot, a new play by Theresa Rebeck, from the he-men who feel men should be men, women should be women, and things have been pretty goddamn good for 3,000 years for the ones with dicks, so all these feminists should just shut the fuck up. For that is, sadly, what one segment of the body politic would most likely focus on after experiencing Rebeck's taut, compelling piece—if they were big enough pussies to actually walk into a real theater.

Rebeck's play is about the diplomatic maneuvering between a British and American diplomat over the fate of a young Muslim woman accused of heresy during the Hajj in Mecca, probing a variety of Important Issues, from religion and faith to geopolitics and Western arrogance and ignorance of indigenous cultures. But it's clear her primary concern is that of female empowerment—and that is what will stick in the craw of the manly men and the womanly women who bristle at the politically correct progressive/communist/fascist/carpet-and-arugula-munching agenda that threatens to emasculate the white men who made this country so great and turn it over to nonwhite people.

True, Rebeck is a bit polemical at times and a bit too simplistic at others (re: the two main male characters are assholes, and the two female characters are dismissed and ridiculed). But her enormous talent provides a tense, riveting dramatic narrative in spite of the conspicuous gender politicking. And part of that talent is creating characters with sharply conflicting ideas that all, at some point, seem right.

Marina (Nikki Massoud), the young Muslim woman who takes part in a peaceful protest that turns ugly, is right about women standing up to oppression. Ann (Charlayne Woodard), an American diplomat who has just arrived in Saudi Arabia, is right that Marina should be offered political asylum. Edgar (Alan Smyth), a British diplomat who has lived in Saudi Arabia for 11 years, is right that the Saudi legal system should determine Marina's fate. And Usama (Demosthenes Chrysan), a Muslim cleric, is right that Marina has broken the law and should be turned over to the authorities.

Of course, with everyone being so right, a fustercluck ensues, with no easy solution in sight.

There's an absolute dramatic thrust to the plot—Marina's fate—and when Zealot focuses on what she's done, why she's done it, why she believes it's justified, and why others agree or don't, the play ignites, thanks to a steady grip on the wheel from director Marc Masterson. But it sputters during the second act when the focus changes to faith and belief, with the ardent Marina—who claims to truly hear Allah speak to her—posed against the rational, atheist Edgar. There are some funny lines from the sardonic Brit, but the play idles, even with the most memorable visual moment involving a tentative hand touching a face.

The characters are starkly drawn, but they're not all fully developed. Ann is particularly thin, sounding like a dual mouthpiece: one for America's role as moral arbiter, the other for the advancement of women's rights. Woodard's high-strung performance doesn't help. And while Massoud's Marina is the right blend of determination and helplessness, Rebeck's handling of her nebulous faith undermines the bold action she undertakes. It's Islam, but a better Islam. Allah is her God, but it's a new kind of Allah, one whose instructions aren't codified in the Quran but resonating in the spirituality of his new tribe (women) who follow the laws of the Earth, not of man. It's an ungainly mix of Islam, New Age spirituality and Earth Mother worship, and it muddies what is otherwise a riveting battle between wills and reality-based belief systems, such as law, justice and equality.

While Marina is the dramatic impetus and Ann the moral compass, it seems this is ultimately Edgar's play—although Smyth's commanding performance might have something to do with that. He is as witty and dry as he is morally ambiguous and borderline contemptible. When the lights dim in the final moment and he is alone onstage, we see how the consequences of his actions, as well as his inactions, weigh on him. And the question of Edgar's role magnifies one of the biggest questions in a play that raises so many compelling ones: Can one person's actions truly advance history in a time when history isn't so much written by the victors as it is parsed by institutionalized bureaucracies and perpetuated through ossified tradition?

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