It’s kind of like a horror movie with an obvious out — like “Why don’t they just call the cops?”
In her 2011 script How the World Began, Catherine Trieschmann sets up an artificial conflict between the scientific and the religious. Susan has recently arrived in Plainview, Kansas, to teach biochemistry at the local high school. At first, she claims that her reasons for coming are altruistic: she wants to help out because a tornado has recently leveled the town and left 17 dead. But it soon emerges that she’s also there for more pressing practical reasons: she’s about to become a single mom, and this job offers both quick teaching certification and health insurance.
Coming from New York, though, Susan is politically and culturally blue — and Plainview is not.
The rub comes when an agitated young student named Micah asks to speak to Susan after class. He points out — and he’s got notes to back it up — that, in a recent lesson, Susan implicitly dismissed the Christian view of the origins of life on Earth as “gobbledegook.” Reasonably, he wants Susan to apologize to the class. But she refuses. She lies. She evades. She dresses up her intransigence as principle. But she could always just apologize. She could always just call the cops.
Defenders of the play will say she doesn’t because she’s insecure in her position and that, as the situation escalates, an apology becomes increasingly difficult. Okay. Sort of. But the option of behaving like a grown-up never disappears.
Defenders of the play will also argue — more persuasively — that intransigence is what the play is about. Micah is relentless. And his unofficial guardian, Gene, is both affable and manipulative. He brings a lemon meringue pie to his first meeting with Susan. He offers it as a welcome gesture, but he’s also softening her up.
Although I found Micah by far the most sympathetic figure — with one notable exception, he’s the most direct — all three of them are locked in various forms of positionality. That’s a familiar dynamic in our public discourse, but the way Trieschmann explores it feels deliberate, every twist and revelation mechanical.
Under Sarah Rodgers’s direction, the production itself is more interesting.
Inhabiting Micah right to his follicles, Evan Rein brings an almost transparent clarity to the character. And Ron Reed is ridiculously well suited to the role of Gene: he’s worn these boots before.
Meghan Gardiner brings her considerable intelligence the role of Susan. I found her overly brittle off the top: the script tells us that Susan is running roughshod over Micah even before he’s made his request; she doesn’t need to comment on it as an actor. But her work grows in emotional fullness.
And the show looks great. Pacific Theatre’s seats and playing area used to be a swimming pool. It’s a very contained space. But, by washing the theatre’s walls and her set in a pale grey-blue — which lighting designer John Webber accents with wisps of cloud — set designer Jessica Oostergo makes it feel as spacious as Kansas. And, in a clever twist, she puts Susan’s temporary classroom on a wheeled trailer that feels like it could be a piece of farm equipment. The wheels indicate the potential for movement, and the central question of the play is whether or not movement towards understanding is possible.
This might sound dismissive. I don’t mean it to. For me, the most emotionally engaging part of the evening was the curtain call. I’m not crazy about the play, but I found it moving to see three actors of different generations sharing the space, sharing the good intentions and the adventure. It’s a noble calling.
HOW THE WORLD BEGAN By Catherine Trieschmann. Directed by Sarah Rodgers. A Pacific Theatre production at Pacific Theatre on Saturday, March 26. Continues until April 16. Tickets
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