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Theater Review: Sharp Writing and Acting in Shaker Bridge Production of ‘How the World Began’



Thursday, April 02, 2015
A t first read, the premise of the engrossing play How the World Began by Catherine Trieschmann, which runs through April 12 at Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield, sounds too neat, too pat.

Susan Pierce, a teacher from New York, starts a job teaching biology in a Kansas town that was recently devastated by a tornado. Because the biology curriculum includes the theory of evolution, she runs into a brick wall of resistance from some students who believe that it’s God, not Darwin, who best explains how the universe began, and how species evolved.

One boy, named Micah Staab, is particularly confrontational. He accuses Pierce of ridiculing his faith, and the faith of the other students: Didn’t she say in class that any other explanation for how the world began was “gobbledy-gook?” Which, he tells her angrily, insinuates that people who believe in God are backward and stupid.

Pierce begins to back-pedal, realizing she’s gotten herself into a jam. But the more she equivocates, the angrier Staab becomes. She’s not in New York City anymore, Toto, but deep in the Kansas prairie. And when Staab’s guardian, Gene Dinkel, enters the picture, scolding Pierce for her insensitivity to local mores and beliefs, she reacts with incredulity.

It’s her obligation to teach the theory of evolution to students whose bedrock beliefs could not be more opposed to her own. But it’s one thing to contemplate this in the abstract, and quite another to actually do it. And this is where the play lights out into more tangled territory.

I’d been resigning myself for something closer to a TV movie: The sophisticated, irreligious New Yorker meets the local hayseeds, and after some earnest, heartwarming dialogue at a pot luck or church supper — Yummy chicken pot pie, Mrs. Himmelfuss, and please pass the Scripture! — the two sides reach an understanding, or one side is converted to the other side’s point of view. Well, not quite.

Dogmatic faith can take many forms, some of them terrifyingly absolutist.

John Brown, who modeled his life on the patriarchs of the Old Testament, fought and died for the abolitionist cause, but was also implicated in the murder of five men who were slave traders in Pottowattamie, Kan. Where ISIS has conquered territory and brutalized thousands, it does so in the name of Allah. Oliver Cromwell, the Protestant Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, raised the sword against the Irish Catholics in the massacres at Drogheda and Wexford, calling the slaughter a “righteous judgment of God.”

But the play upends our presumptions about how its characters will behave, and engages in a charged debate about religion, philosophy and the responsibilities people have to each other as human beings. Look at the individual, look at the specific, and listen, Trieschmann seems to say: Resist the urge, irresistible though it may be, to paint with the broad brush. Director Mark Bergren u nderlines Trieschmann’s points with his empathetic handling of the actors and text.

We may recoil from Micah Staab’s unyielding fundamentalism, but he’s still a teenager who has been deeply affected by the death of his father, and other towns people in the tornado. Gene Dinkel is folksy and patronizing to Pierce, but he also shows unexpected compassion and depth. Susan Pierce is right about evolution, but she bristles easily and often, and is frequently condescending.

The acting in this production injects complexity and life into the parts of the play where Trieschmann digs herself into a slightly formulaic, tit-for-tat argument.

Amy Hutchins, as Susan Pierce, is tough-minded and intelligent, but you see the fear behind her defensive facade as she realizes that she is in over her head. She’s such a verbal creature that the more dire her situation, the more she brandishes words as her weapon.

David Bonanno, now a Shaker Bridge regular, is persuasive as Gene Dinkel, who is as irritating as he is kindly. He has the toughest part in some ways, because Dinkel is that most vexing of creatures: a largely well-intentioned but blundering man whose passive-aggressive interference only rubs people the wrong way.

As Micah, the play’s most compelling character, Daniel Fleischer is unafraid to be unsympathetic and truculent, but you also feel how mighty his struggle is, as he wrestles with his conscience. He earns our sympathy and a grudging respect for his adamant belief in his principles, even as his adamance drives us away. Fleischer shows a maturity, poise and commitment to the part that easily makes him the equal of the two adults. How the World Began is a bracing evening of smart writing and superior acting.

H ow the World Began runs through April 12 at Enfield’s Whitney Hall. For information and tickets call Shaker Bridge Theatre at 603-448-3750 or go to shakerbridge.org.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.

Correction

Mark Bergren directed Shaker Bridge Theatre’s production of How the World Began . The director was misidentified in an earlier version of this review.