Ask a big city Blue State high school science teacher and a rural Bible Belt high school student how the world began and you’ll probably get two quite different answers. Put this teacher and this student in the same classroom in small town Kansas and sparks are likely to fly.

This is precisely the situation that Georgia-born playwright Catherine Trieschmann imagines in her gripping, talk-provoking drama How The World Began, now being given a powerful World Premiere production at South Coast Repertory.

Thirtyish, single, and visibly pregnant, Susan Pierce (Sarah Rafferty) has come to rural Kansas for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is to do some good in a part of the world where disaster has struck. Her destination, Plainview, is still reeling from a recent tornado that killed seventeen, blew down the high school, and devastated the lives of the entire town.

High school student Micah Staab (Jarrett Sleeper) is one of those most affected by the catastrophe. Still recovering from the death of his mother several years earlier, Micah has now also lost his stepfather to the tornado. A local couple has taken Micah in, and though they are not Micah’s blood kin and not even his legal guardians, they are doing their best to give the orphaned teenager the love and support he so obviously needs.

Susan has only this morning taught a class on the origin of life when Micah pays an afterschool visit to her temporary modular classroom. After considerable small talk and beating around the bush, Micah finally blurts out what’s he’s clearly been meaning to say from the start. Ms. Pierce has referred to “other theories” on life’s origin as “a bunch of gobbledygook” and Micah wants to know just what she meant by that. Was she implying that his belief that “God created the heavens and the earth” is a bunch of gibberish?


Susan attempts to talk herself out of the hole she’s dug herself into, explaining that what she was referring to were those pre-19th-century scientific theories we don’t consider scientific anymore, but her arguments prove no match for Micah, who clearly has a promising law career ahead of him should he take that path. He’s not the only one of his classmates to have made note of her words, and not the only one to feel entitled to an apology. This of course is about as likely to happen as hell freezing over, and the confrontation between student and teacher reaches an impasse.

The following day Micah’s caregiver Gene Dinkel (Time Winters) drops by Susan’s classroom to deliver a welcoming meringue pie and to try to smooth things over.  Folksy middle-aged Gene seems at first a good deal more reasonable than surly young Micah, that is until he lets slip his own belief that dinosaur fossils are God’s way of testing our belief in Creation Genesis-style.

Is there any way to bridge this seemingly unbridgeable gap between science and theology masquerading as science? With forty percent of all Americans believing like Micah that despite irrefutable scientific evidence to the contrary, we humans have only been on the planet for 10,000 years, is there any way to reach a middle ground? With similar beliefs actually being espoused by folks aiming for the top spot on the November 2012 ballot, could our country be any more polarized?

That playwright Trieschmann makes her home in small town western Kansas hints that, despite ultimately weighing in on Susan’s side (or at least so it seems to this reviewer), she may well believe that there is indeed a way for us all to live together. Still, don’t expect any easy solutions in How The World Began, as its very last line makes abundantly clear.

Trieschmann deserves kudos for managing to tell her story with a mere three characters, a financially savvy move in these economically tight times and one that could well persuade regional theaters take a chance on a potentially controversial play. Though there are times when a fourth character might come in handy (e.g. Susan’s superior, mentioned several times in the script), How The World Began works very well indeed with just Susan, Micah, and Gene.

The playwright doesn’t fill in all the blanks in these three characters’ lives, and doubtless deliberately so. As a teacher, Susan’s personal life is off-limits, so all we know about the baby she’s expecting is that there’s no father in the picture. Trieschmann doesn’t tell us much about Gene’s marriage, whether taking Micah in is simply an act of Christian charity or whether the parental need runs deeper. As for Micah, the playwright suggests from the get-go that this is one deeply troubled youth, though it isn’t till very near the end that she lets us truly glimpse his pain, and even then, some questions remain unanswered.

Does this matter? It might if How The World Began were a novel, but theater audiences are accustomed to connecting the dots, and at about ninety minutes running time, Trieschmann’s play doesn’t outstay its welcome.

As for any bias the writer might harbor towards science over theological dogma, Trieschmann makes up for it by creating three truly decent human beings. There is no demonizing here, and the fact that we like Gene, ache for Micah, and sympathize with Susan makes it all the more difficult to point fingers at any of them.

Daniella Topol directs this World Premiere with fire and finesse, and has elicited from her actors three of the richest performances you’re likely to see anytime soon.

Yale School Of Drama grad Rafferty, currently starring in the USA series Suits, makes for an absolutely terrific Susan, combining equal parts bravado and vulnerability. It helps of course that Trieschmann has written Rafferty a great part to play, a woman whose seemingly conciliatory words can’t hide the fact that deep down inside she feels she’s better than these country folk. Still, Rafferty brings to Susan a spunky likeability that not every actress could inspire, and that is not the least of her gifts. (Incidentally, both Susan and Sarah are expecting.)

Winters has been honored with a pair of Best Actor Scenie awards for his leading role in I Capture The Castle and his featured performance in How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found. Both characters were Englishmen, a nationality Winters imitates to such perfection that it comes almost as a surprise to see him vanish into this salt-of-the-earth Plains Stater. No hick farmer is Gene, however, or at least not with the intelligence bordering on craftiness that Winters gives him, yet there’s hardly an audience member that would turn down an invitation to sup with the Dinkels.

And then there is Sleeper, previously seen at SCR in Doctor Cerberus in a comedic supporting turn that hinted at a young actor to watch. How The World Began fulfills this promise in a performance that is quite simply unforgettable. It’s considerably tougher on stage than in film to show the kind of inner torment Micah is going through, yet Sleeper lets us know from Micah’s first entrance that these troubled waters run deep. Micah is more that a bit of a know-it-all, and though Sleeper doesn’t hesitate to let him get on our nerves, he also makes sure we see the heart beneath the boldness. In Micah’s final scenes, Trieschmann gives Sleeper material that might stump a less talented actor, but not this one. Award organizations should take note.

Sara Ryung Clement combines her talents for scenic and costume design to splendid effect in How The World Began, from Susan’s finely detailed trailer classroom with its meticulously selected science posters and classroom paraphernalia, and her costumes reveal much about the characters who wear them, from Susan’s granny dresses to Gene’s worn jeans. Paul Whitaker’s excellent lighting design ranges from the stark white florescents of just about any U.S. classroom to sunrises, sunsets, and impending storms that provide a quintessentially Kansas backdrop. Darron L West’s sound design and original music up the suspense considerably. Kelly L. Miller is dramaturg, Jackie S. Hill production manager, and Jennifer Ellen Butler.

You won’t stop talking about How The World Began until long after its final fadeout. Trieschmann’s play and its World Premiere production at South Coast Repertory are causes for celebration and debate—and it doesn’t get much better or more relevant than that.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
October 2, 2011
Photos: Henry Di Rocco

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