Since the establishment of modern democracy, several men — and fewer women — have inked policies that govern civic activity, yielding black-and-white legal truths of what constitutes a criminal act. Sexual assault offenses, however, often walk a line of indeterminate territory. As British defense attorney Tessa Ensler — the whip-smart protagonist of Suzie Miller’s relentless one-woman show, “Prima Facie” — explains, “in sexual assault cases it’s usually just one person’s word against another’s.” Because in many of these instances, there are no witnesses present at the moment of the crime. Victims who feel sullied and violated may wash evidence down the drain. Drugs and alcohol can blur perception. And shame, most of all, muddies up all of that black and white. Considering this, “Prima Facie” takes up permanent residence in the gray area, resulting in a mesmerizing 90 minutes of unshakeable live theater.
The weight of “Prima Facie” lies squarely on actor Jodie Comer’s capable shoulders. The award-winning performer (most known for her murderous turn as Villanelle in BBC America’s “Killing Eve”) plays Tessa. She opens the show with a crackling reenactment of a trial —specifically, the mental dance attorneys perform when they know they are on the verge of winning a case. She compares lawyers to thoroughbreds, “every muscle pumped, trained and ready for the sprint.” Comer complies, whizzing through a cross-examination like a prime contender at the Kentucky Derby. Tessa calls this the “game” of law, but it’s immediately evident that for her, the process is more like a hunt. Ironically, most of Tessa’s targets are women accusing men of sexual assault.