How the World Began
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
January 4, 2012
It starts with an interesting premise and a hot-button issue. Susan Pierce, five-months pregnant, relocates from New York City to a small town in Kansas, recently decimated by a tornado, to teach biology at the local high school. A seemingly innocuous statement—that all of the non-scientific theories about the time gap between non-life and life on Earth are “gobbledygook”—dismays a group of her students, Micah Stabb in particular, who happen to be Young Earth Creationists. The remainder of Catherine Trieschmann’s How the World Began deals with the fallout, and each character’s inability to accept one another’s views.
Very little actually takes place over the course of the 90-minute work, directed by Daniella Topol for the Women’s Project. Trieschmann presents a series of scenes in which the exact same thing occurs: the characters state their respective beliefs, they disagree, they argue, and one storms out. While she vaguely explores a host of thought-provoking ideas, from the small religious town’s reaction to the statement to survivor’s guilt, there’s just so much you can do when your characters refuse on principle to apologize or back down. You can chart the trajectory from the very beginning, and How the World Began ends exactly as you expect it would.
More distressing is that it seems theatricals is clearly on Susan’s side, passing judgment on Micah, his non-legal (and non-Creationist) guardian Gene, and the absent townspeople. It’s as if she knows that even mentioning creationist viewpoints—that God created the universe—would receive titters of laughter, and that the audience would similarly be in Susan’s corner. Yet Susan, boldly played by Heidi Schreck, is the least likable of the three characters, never budging from her views that their beliefs are just plain wrong, and, in effect never garners any sympathy (from me, at least) when the townspeople start publicly excoriating her.
Instead, my sympathy went towards Justin Kruger’s Micah. In a keenly observed performance, Kruger plays the role as a damaged teenager for whom religion is everything. He can accept that Susan disagrees with his views, but simply cannot understand why she can’t bring herself to apologize with even a modicum of honesty. It helps that Schreck is unafraid to instill in Susan a relentless condescension that is apparent even in her most sincere moments. Adam LeFevre rounds out the cast, and is thoroughly believable as Gene, a character which, unfortunately, also gets easy laughter from merely dialect and movement.
Confined to a realistic one-room school trailer (designed, along with costumes, by Clint Ramos), Topol’s staging is well-paced and appropriately claustrophobic. It would be remiss not to mention that the verbal sparring in How the World Began is reminiscent of Inherit the Wind. Yet that play manages to ratchet up the suspense considerably throughout, with characters who similarly refuse to back down from their beliefs. Even though the audience knows the outcome from the get-go, it’s still riveting. Comparatively, How the World Began doesn’t even come close.