Theater review: ‘How the World Began’ at South Coast Repertory
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On the evolutionary ladder of playwriting, “How the World Began,” Catherine Trieschmann’s new drama about a standoff between a biology teacher and irate creationists, occupies a relatively low rung. The issue under discussion is distressingly topical, but the work seems better suited to a school auditorium than to a playhouse of South Coast Repertory’s standing.
To Trieschmann’s credit, she tries to be fair to all sides, situating the views of her characters, no matter how extreme, in personal details that are chosen with empathy. But neither the intellectual debate nor the human story is sharply illuminated.
Susan Pierce (Sarah Rafferty, cleanly doing what she can with the part) is a new teacher in Plainview, Kan., a town that is rebuilding after a tornado wreaked havoc. Unmarried, pregnant and not fully licensed, she has a degree from Brooklyn College, some messy personal history in New York and a desire to make a new start for herself.
She also has powerful convictions about the teaching of science and an urban impatience with provincial narrowness. Her words aren’t always measured, and something she said in class — a reference to “gobbledygook” when talking about unscientific theories of how life on Earth arose — comes back to haunt her.
Micah Staab (Jarrett Sleeper), one of her students, has taken offense. He demands an explanation of her comments, and the two engage in a kind of lawyerly cat-and-mouse that’s like David Mamet without the verbal fangs and toxin.
The other character in the mix is a vague, homespun busybody named Gene Dinkel (Time Winters). He was Plainview’s postmaster when there was still a standing post office, and he’s become in effect Micah’s guardian after the boy’s stepfather was killed in the tornado. Micah’s mother died earlier (“from some kind of woman’s cancer,” Gene reports), and the teen has a blank expression that suggests he’s still in a state of shock. Gene asks Susan to apologize to Micah, but things grow more complicated after the issue becomes politicized through talk radio and someone burns a scarecrow with a gorilla mask outside of Susan’s home.
Trieschmann blocks out the play as series of quietly menacing confrontations. But there’s something cautiously old-fashioned about her storytelling. Exposition runs through the drama like cumbersome macramé. The language is banal, and while the characters have their share of quirks, their actions are too tentative to seize our imagination. The play is, in Darwinian terms, a throwback, willfully oblivious to the most interesting developments of modern drama. No one would call “Inherit the Wind,” a conventional courtroom drama touching on similar concerns, cutting edge, but even it seems bolder by comparison.
Perhaps “How the World Began,” which was featured in SCR’s 2011 Pacific Playwrights Festival, would work better as a radio drama. The most vivid aspect of the production, directed by Daniella Topol with pedestrian momentum, is the way Paul Whitaker’s lighting changes on Sara Ryung Clement’s makeshift classroom set. The action takes place in a trailer that’s being used as temporary headquarters for instruction during the post-tornado reconstruction, but we’re given occasional poetic glimpses of the rural vastness outside. Not much else would be lost by the shift to a sightless medium.
The cast is serviceable, delivering performances on the level of a solid stage reading. Sleeper seems too old for Micah, but he’s effective at conveying inarticulate adolescent frustration. Rafferty is hamstrung by the strained dialogue in Susan’s contrived encounter scenes, but the actress has an appealing briskness. Winters hasn’t yet sorted out Gene’s muddled nature, but at least he doesn’t make us completely loathe the meddlesome guy. Trieschmann can’t be accused of having written a one-sided drama. But nor can it be said that she has spun her hot-button material into a compelling work of theater.
“How the World Began,” South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Ends Oct. 16. $20-$68. (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes