Sunday, January 08, 2012

THEATER: How the World Began

Photo/Carol Rosegg
How the World Began is a frustrating play, both intentionally and unintentionally so. The central premise, quickly revealed, is that Susan Pierce (Heidi Schreck), a teacher-in-training who has moved to a school still being rebuilt in tornado-afflicted Kansas, has inadvertently let some of her snarky East Coast habits sneak into her biology lectures. As one of her students, the bright and traumatized Micah Staab (Justin Kruger), points out, whether it's scientifically true or not, it's not right to imply that other theories of evolution are "gobbledy gook."

This is the intentionally frustrating part, for as the five-months-pregnant Susan admits to Micah's unofficial guardian, the easy-going and rationally religious Gene Dinkel (Adam LeFevre), she's both not good on the defensive and has no way to get through to someone with such ardent beliefs. What follows, with moments of tenderness interspersed within, is the unintentional part, for the result is an unambiguous ninety minutes of religious debate in which playwright Catherine Trieschmann's only real accomplishment is in giving each of the characters the moral high ground at one point or another. Her previous play with Women's Project, crooked, used original characters and circumstances to throw us off our own firm beliefs, but we've seen people like Susan, Micah, and Gene before.

Like the equally one-note Other Desert Cities, then, How the World Began struggles to rise above being a repetitious argument centered on a misunderstanding. No matter how well-written, how realistic, how witty, it boils down to a verbal standoff, and there's only so much the talented director Daniella Topol can do without something big actually happening on stage. (The escalations occur off-stage, and are only vaguely implied by, say, transitional lighting cues.) Schreck does a fine job selling us on her intensifying stress, especially after a gorilla-masked scarecrow is burnt on her lawn, but this also makes it seem as if she's the only character with anything at stake. And while Trieschmann implies that Micah's need for a public apology is grounded in his recent history -- his mother and step-father were killed in the same storm that destroyed the school -- she also holds back so much that it's difficult for Kruger to play the role as anything less than a cipher.

The final scene -- the final moment, actually -- hints at the better play How the World Began is capable of being, as Susan once again helps to sooth Micah's internal storm ("Just breathe...'til there's nothing left inside you but breath and heartbeat"). As the lights dim, on the two of them, she feels her baby kick. Micah reaches out to feel, only to have his hand slapped away: "Don't you dare." It's the first moment of real surprise, a play on the earlier suggestion that despite our beliefs, we're all human, and therefore all connected.

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