Thursday, January 05, 2012

How the World Began

Heidi Schreck and Adam LeFevre
Photo: Carol Rosegg

After her life in New York falls apart, Susan Pierce (Heidi Schreck) ends up in Plainview, KS, teaching science to high schoolers whose town was recently decimated by a tornado. Susan has a tendency to say whatever pops into her head, no matter how inappropriate. She makes jokes to her student Micah Staab (Justin Kruger) about a herd of cows that were killed in the tornado. But the Christian Micah is more put off that she said, in class, "The leap from non-life to life is the greatest gap in scientific theories of the Earth's early history, unless, of course, you believe in all that other gobbledy gook." (At least that's what he claims she said. We do not see the scene.) In fact, he is highly offended and wants Susan to apologize. After Susan refuses to do so, Micah's unofficial guardian, Gene Dinkel (Adam Lefevre)--a Christian who believes in evolution and sees natural selection as "God's hand" at work--also tries to get her to apologize.

This is the basic story of How the World Began, Catherine Trieschmann's new play, currently being presented by the excellent Women's Project at Playwright's Horizon. It goes on to examine belief versus nonbelief, relationships, grief and loss, and standing by one's principles. Parts of it are fascinating; the characters are three-dimensional and occasionally surprising in convincing ways.  Rather than being a pseudo-screenplay like many contemporary plays, How the World Began unfolds in the sort of long, thoughtful scenes that theatre does best of all the art forms.

There's so much I liked about this play that I'm sad about my reservations, but here they are:

[possible spoilers below]

The most important one is that the character of Susan is whiny and dishonest. Since she represents my point of view, I wanted very much to like her, but she won't take responsibility for what she said--in fact, she denies having said it--and then won't take responsibility for what it means. She even claims that she didn't mean religion when she said "all that other gobbledy gook," although clearly she did. I didn't want Susan to be perfect or Joan of Arc. I understood that she feared for her job. But her dishonesty cast a pall over her actions and beliefs. (I suppose it's possible that she genuinely forgot what she said, but that seems highly unlikely.)

Another problem I had was with the structure of the play. Micah's true motivation is not revealed til toward the end of the play. However, the delay felt too much like a plot device. There was no character-driven reason for him not to have explained his thinking earlier.

Susan's interactions with Gene--which I actually found more interesting that her interactions with Micah--are never resolved. She says something horrible to him, and we never see him again.

Some of the humor struck me as easy laughs for the knowing, evolution-savvy theatregoer. (Though on a whole I found Trieschmann to be respectful of the two Christian characters--perhaps more respectful than she was of Susan.) And some moments were heavy-handed. For example, right at the beginning Susan is freaked out by the smell of manure (oh, she's not in New York anymore!).  Even the name of the town--Plainview--is a little too on the nose.

And I wish all playwrights would stop having scenes where the characters are waiting for someone we know will never come because we know how many people are in the cast (exception: Beckett). It just comes across as fake.

[no more spoilers]

The show is well-directed (by Daniella Topol) and largely well-acted. I had some trouble with Schreck as Susan, but I came to think that my problem was actually with the character. Adam Lefevre gives great depth and warmth to Gene, and Justin Kruger wears Micah's emotions on his sleeve.

I recommend How the World Began to people interested in the topic. But I can't help but think that there's a better play in there.

(press ticket; 4th row center)

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