'How the World Began' Cleans Those Jesus Glasses
It's unfortunate Catherine Trieschmann's new play, How the World Began, can easily be described as a conflict between an evolutionist teacher and a creationist student in a Kansas high school. It's unfortunate because while strict creationism and the back-asswards views of some Christians wither before the playwright's sharp, pungent prose, labeling her play as a barrage against Christian fundamentalists doesn't do it nearly enough justice. This isn't an assault on decent, God-fearin' Americans from some smart-aleck playwright passing judgment from the gleefully unapologetic liberal aisles of American theater (although there's certainly nothing wrong with that . . .).
If anything, it's about recovery and rebuilding and, yes, evolution—but not in the Big Idea Darwinian sense. Rather, it's in a very local and personal sense. A rural Kansas town is rebuilding from a devastating tornado that wiped it out a year before, claiming 17 victims. A transplanted New York City teacher is rebuilding from professional and personal turmoil. And, most compelling, an earnest, if somewhat myopic, high-school boy is trying to rebuild from the consequences of a choice that he believes played a critical part in the disaster. All three rebuilding processes face steep hurdles, and religion plays a huge part.
Our protagonist, Susan Pierce (a smart, sarcastic, multilayered Sarah Rafferty), is in her first week of teaching high-school biology in a small town in northwest Kansas. Pierce has sterling academic cred, but she has yet to be certified as a public-school teacher. She opts to leave the Big Apple, due to personal and professional issues, and settles in the Midwest, where the program she is in will allow her to continue her certification process and receive health benefits. (Those benefits are rather important because Pierce is five months pregnant and the baby daddy isn't in the picture.)
But when she offhandedly states in class that "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 gobbledygook," a devoutly religious student, Micah (a painfully confused and empathetic, if vaguely menacing, Jarrett Sleeper) interprets the remark as an attack on God's plan, as outlined in the book of Genesis. Already aware that she's perilously close to triggering a land mine, Susan tells Micah it was a regrettable choice of words, but she wasn't dismissing creationism as gibberish. She also tells him she firmly believes in separation of church and state and that issues of faith are personal and should not be discussed in a science classroom.
As Micah persists, Susan grows increasingly short, and tension builds. The problem is two years before, some eager townsfolk affiliated with "young Earth" creationism tried to force the school district to include creationism in the curriculum. And Susan's remark, though she believes it harmless, if unprofessional, sparks an ember that quickly ignites into a firestorm that sweeps across the town.
The play's third character, Gene Dinkel (a disarmingly friendly but kind of creepy Time Winters), holds the middle ground between Susan's East Coast intellectualism and Micah's Midwestern fundamentalism. Micah's not-quite-legal guardian respects Susan's intelligence and candor, but he also believes firmly in the words of Genesis, though he isn't nearly as dogmatic as Micah. Rather than serve as a bridge between the two, his constant meddling—fueled by a fervent desire to protect the fragile Micah—divides them even more.
Religion and science are vital to this play as ideas, but it's the intensely complicated relationship between Sarah and Micah that supplies How the World Began's dramatic impetus. Polar opposites in terms of religious belief, they are each reeling from past trauma. Though Micah is far more wounded, Susan carries her own scars, and her keen desire to hold on to her position, even as ill winds gather about her, amplifies her precarious state. But there is also a sense of deep compassion for the other. Even as they argue and grow frustrated with each other, Micah is drawn to Susan's unwed-mother status, just as she is drawn to his deep confusion. Yet, in the play's striking final image, you clearly get the sense that no matter how much Susan may feel for Micah's plight, a yawning chasm still exists.
It's a smart, well-told, highly emphatic story of characters trying to rebuild their lives, finely laid out in director Daniella Topol's capable hands. And while a blistering monologue near the play's end from a stressed-out Susan about the dangers of religious extremism may ring most clearly in some audience members' ears, a more careful listen reveals that Trieschmann isn't concerned with us vs. them nearly as much as we. And how tolerance doesn't just extend to skin color, sexual preference or religious practice, but also to ideas, beliefs, even faith.
This review appeared in print as "Cleaning Those Jesus Glasses: The excellent How the World Began is about more than just creationism vs. reason."
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