theater (reviews)

review: how the world began

How The World Began

by Catherine Trieschmann
Directed by Daniella Topol
Featuring Heidi Schreck, Adam LeFevre, Justin Kruger
Women’s Project + South Coast Repertory
Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
January 5, 2012 — January 29, 2012
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
January 4, 2012

(L-R) Justin Kruger, Heidi Schreck, Adam LeFevre. Image by Carol Rosegg.

I have read and seen many plays that take on the themes of creationism, atheism, intelligent design, science public education and public research funding edging up to these issues.  From a turgid reportage of Darwin and the publication of The Origin of Species to a preach-y treatment (that left me cold but others have loved for months) of Freud in his final weeks of life debating science and theology with C.S. Lewis to the dramatization of William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow taking opposites sites in the 1920s Tennessee Scopes Monkey Trial case of states’ rights and creationism and science and on and on.  There is debate to mine out of these themes, but it is hard, very hard, to craft moving, human scale, non-didactic drama out of the raw material.  In a contemporary classroom in the American Midwest, in a land accustomed to the whims of nature (and I was almost surprised not to have a reference to Oz and its transforming/transporting cyclone in the text, or did I miss it?), in a trailer classroom providing temporary quarters after what we soon realize has been a damaging windstorm, playwright Catherine Trieschmann has succeeded in crafting a simple story with complicated threads out of our fractured cultural (and her characters’ fragmented personal) relationships with faith and science.  Man’s place in the universe is established clearly at the outset. Weather or other factors will win in the end.  Our conversation, our story is in part a discussion of theism and a-thesim, and in larger part about much else.  A stunning achievement.

High school biology teacher Susan (Heidi Schreck) is five months pregnant and, we soon discover, remaking her life in teaching after (mostly undisclosed) failures in relationship and professional life in New York City.  In starting her life anew, as a final part of her teaching certification, she is assigned to Plainview, Kansas (apparently without doing much research on the way of life in small towns).  Micah (Justin Kruger), one of her biology students, comes in to see her after class to discuss some of her comments in class characterizing explanations other than the theory of evolution for the origins of the world as “gobbledy gook”.  The manner in which these two characters react to, debate, discuss, resolve their impressions of the use of that word in a moment in the course of a class conversation provides the frame and jumping off point for the rest of the play’s action.  Along the way a parental figure, informal foster-father Gene (Adam LeFevre) to the orphan Justin, attempts to negotiate a through line while contributing his own complex back story to the taut action of the ensuing sequence of scenes.  Believable, human scale tension and release.

While Susan’s character seemed at times to be a bit too naive about the “everyone knows everybody’s business” nature of small town life and I grimace a bit at the plot developments that rely upon her inflamed emotions perhaps available as a result of her pregnancy, these characters surprise and instruct.  The strong, stalwart, earnestly righteous yet sweet Micah; the conciliatory and funny Gene; and Susan the visitor from another land whose generous and perhaps damaged soul co-exists with her rigid a-theistic stance.

Set design by Clint Ramos perfectly evokes a spare and spanking new trailer-cum-classroom (complete with exposed cutaway roof insulation that is reminiscent of the sawed-off two-by-four edges of Tigers Be Still at the Roundabout New Play Initiative black box).  Sound design by Darron L. West provides a pastiche of paradise sounds (chirping crickets, school band in the distance) combined with the vaguely and strongly annoying realities of mosquitoes buzzing a bit too close and chain saws dealing with trees toppled in the recent devastating windstorm.  This is a visual, aural, and intellectual treat with carefully constructed and consistent characters that move, surprise, and provoke.

© Martha Wade Steketee (January 5, 2012)

1 reply »

  1. And a truly terrific essay by playwright Trieschmann on a truly terrific blog / site / community called “Howlround”.

    http://www.howlround.com/on-theater-and-religion-or-disappointing-mother/

    My favorite section comes at the end. I have seen this quoted now by several folks. I shall add my quote-with-attribution to movement.

    Says Trieschmann:
    “The experience of watching Jerusalem confirmed something in me I’ve suspected for some time. In life, I may be a progressive Christian, but when it comes to the theater, I’m a complete pagan. In life, I want to align myself with the peacemakers. I want to educate myself about the injustices in the world and address them in whatever ways I can. But when I go to the theater, I want something more than an ennobling education. I want to be knocked on the side of my head with the mysteries of the universe; I want to explore the wild and the wooly terrains of myself that I keep a lid on in polite society; I want to fuck strangers and fear God and poke my eyes out with a needle.”

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