What better time to contemplate the beginning of the world, or, as playwright Catherine Trieschmann puts it in How the World Began, "the leap from non-life to life," than now, with the East Coast still struggling with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy? As the evening begins, we hear terrifying winds, branches cracking, loud crashes and a dog's frantic barking. A tornado has come close to destroying the town of Plainview, Kansas, wiping out familiar buildings, killing seventeen people. Biology teacher Susan Pierce arrives from New York soon afterward. She's motivated by a genuine desire to help the children and also, since she's five months pregnant and her personal life is a shambles, by her need for a steady job with health insurance. Immediately after her first class, however, she's confronted by a student, sixteen-year-old Micah Staab. He wants to know exactly what she meant when she referred dismissively to non-scientific theories about the origin of the universe as "gobbledygook."
Neither student nor teacher comes off well in the encounter. A flustered Susan denies and prevaricates; she doesn't help her credibility by joking about a herd of flying cows in reference to the cattle that died in the disaster or by periodically exclaiming "Jesus H. Fucking Christ." Micah is sullen and barely communicative, but he pushes forward his agenda with unrelenting literal-mindedness. And we in the audience alternate between wanting to see Micah's precarious emotional state, his faith and pain, at least acknowledged by Susan and wanting her belief in science to be strongly validated. Pretty soon Micah's self-appointed guardian, Gene Dinkel, is on the scene, a one-time postmaster with no post office left to run. He bears a lemon meringue pie and hopes to effect a reconciliation between Micah — whose beliefs he generally shares — and Susan. It doesn't work, and things escalate from there.
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The evolution-creationism dispute is well-trodden territory, but How the World Began doesn't feel stale. In part this is because the argument is conducted in some unexpected ways, in part because Trieschmann delineates the vast differences in worldview among her three characters so skillfully. The local radio talk-show blowhard whose rantings terrify Susan, for example, is thought of by Gene and Micah as just a pathetic and ineffectual drunk who needs something to keep him busy. None of the three characters is either completely sympathetic or completely unsympathetic. Susan, the voice of scientific reason, is close to the edge of hysteria much of the time, and now and then topples over it to say something really strange or unforgivable. Micah plays a two-stringed emotional instrument at all times, swinging from anger to self-pity and back again.
It was hard for me to watch the play objectively. I taught at the University of Colorado during the years when George W. Bush was president, Bill Owens was governor of Colorado and David Horowitz's national organization Students for Academic Freedom was urging students to report any professor they believed had shown left-wing bias. We all knew about the Metro State professor who drew national attention and received death threats as a result of Horowitz's work, and the high-school geography teacher in Aurora who was suspended because he said there were elements in Bush's State of the Union address reminiscent of Hitler's rhetoric. It was difficult teaching when the quiet student in the back might be about to unleash holy hell and destroy an entire career based on a couple of unguarded comments. So I more than understood Susan's wariness. Although Micah, whose motives in the play are far more personal than political, obviously cannot.
How the World Began
Presented by the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company through November 17, Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder, 888-512-7469, www.boulderensembletheatre.org.
Emily Paton Davies delivers an engrossing performance as Susan — lonely, vulnerable, and just a little unhinged. Chris Kendall's Gene turns out to be as needy as he is jovial. Ryan Wuestewald communicates Micah's distress strongly, but unvarying grief becomes tiresome to watch, and I can't help wishing the actor — despite the playwright — had found a way to give the character more color and contour.
How the World Began engages the intellect rather than the emotions. It's absorbing to watch, however. The play illustrates the gulf between two entirely different ways of understanding the world, the difficulties well-meaning people encounter trying to bridge that gulf, and the sad and ugly consequences when they fail.