Review: How the World Began
A Kansas biology teacher stirs up a tornado in a teapot.
Fri Jan 6 2012
Photograph: Carol Rosegg
How the World Began
Time Out Ratings :<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5
Seldom have I felt as irritated by an audience as at Catherine Trieschmann's How the World Began, an insightful and compassionate drama that is currently being mounted by Women's Project Theater. As anyone who saw Trieschmann's discomfiting 2008 drama, Crooked, can attest, the playwright is unafraid of portraying difficult women who make mistakes, and in this play she does just that: Its central character is the prickly Susan (Schreck, uncompromisingly flawed), who has fled New York, unmarried and five months pregnant, to teach biology in a Kansas town that has been ravaged by a tornado. When she offhandedly uses the word gobbledygook in class, seemingly in reference to creationism, her plainspoken student Lucas (Kruger)—recently orphaned by the winds—takes offense. What follows is an unusually sensitive theatrical dialogue about the nature of belief and the culture of coping, in which Trieschmann (who lives in Kansas) complicates each issue she raises. The play's people of faith are not treated as buffoons; Lucas's guardian, Gene, is played with extraordinary kindness by Adam LeFevre, and Susan's stubbornness is given due weight in depicting how things go awry.
How the World Began is like a version of David Mamet's Oleanna that is set in the real world. So it was disappointing that some of the audience at the performance I attended treated the Christians' views as gag lines, and even gave Susan's lowest moment—when her frustration drives her to cruelty—a smattering of applause. (The meanest line in Caroline, or Change sometimes got a similar reaction on Broadway.) Some of this may be a function of shock or disquiet, and the production, directed by Daniella Topol, could be faulted for flaws in tonal control; Kruger, in a wickedly difficult role, has not yet settled into all of his beats. But Trieschmann's intelligent design deserves a more careful hearing, and in an odd way, the laughers only confirm the play's relevance. The smugness of city chucklers is built into its central conflict; the joke, when they laugh out of turn, is on them.