How the World Began Review - Conflict between Religion and Science Inexpertly Explored

 

Rivendell Theatre Ensemble closes its 20th anniversary season with the Chicago premiere of How the World Began, the story of a New York City biology teacher who relocates to a small town in rural Kansas. There, she finds that Plainview may be more than she bargained for after an offhand comment about the origins of the universe explodes into a heated controversy. While the play’s premise is interesting and it certainly has some lovely moments, the story falls shy of its full potential, lacking nuance and examining the issue of religion versus science only in the narrowest of terms.

 

Curtis Edward Jackson, Rebecca Spence. Photo by Michael Brosilow

 

This show was the first one I’d seen at Rivendell, and I was excited to experience Chicago’s only equity theatre dedicated to the work of women; however, a quick glance at the program revealed that with only one named female character, this play did not even qualify for the Bechdel-Wallace test (two named female characters have a conversation about something that isn’t a man). Even outside the world of gender parity, the play could have used more characters. Several members of the town, most notably the school principal, Shirley, were mentioned frequently and seemed important to the story yet remained mysteriously offstage, forcing the story to continue with only three characters in ways that sometimes felt awkward.

 

Keith Kupferer, Curtis Edward Jackson. Photo by Michael Brosilow

 

However, I enjoyed the characters that we did get to see. It is easy in this type of story to reduce characters to one-dimensional stereotypes, but playwright Catherine Trieschmann avoids this, giving each of her characters both strengths and flaws. I particularly enjoyed the character Gene, charming town resident and Micah’s unofficial guardian, who served as a middle ground between Micah’s extreme religious belief and Susan’s dedication to scientific fact. The most powerful moments in the play were those in which characters with directly contradictory beliefs (Susan and Gene; Susan and Micah) showed genuine compassion for one another and were about to put their conflict aside to offer help in moments of physical or mental pain.

 

Keith Kupferer, Rebecca Spence. Photo by Michael Brosilow

 

The show started off slowly; Micah’s agonizingly drawn-out complaint about “something you said in class today” seemed unnecessary given the audience’s knowledge of the play’s subject matter and the inevitably of a controversial comment in a biology class in a small Christian town being about evolution versus creationism. Micah’s verbatim recitation of Susan’s comments and fixation on specific words, phrases, and ideas, as well as his inability to understand sarcasm or metaphor, seemed to be more representative of a place on the autism spectrum than a typical small-town Christian’s response to a discussion of evolution, but while Susan made a point of recommending therapy for the trauma Micah experienced after the death of his parents, no indication was made of the possibility of his having Asperger’s or similar, so it is unclear whether or not this effect was intentional. Regardless, his repetitive, circular arguments with Susan became frustrating to the audience and seemed to hinder the text’s ability to really dive into the complexities of its central conflict.

 

Rebecca Spence, Keith Kupferer, Curtis Edward Jackson. Photo by Michael Brosilow

 

Several lines in the text seemed to indicate that Susan was intended to be a woman of color; references to lynching and burning crosses landed less heavily with a white actress than they might have with a darker-skinned one. The ending, although its attempt to parallel the play’s opening was admirable, felt cheap and inauthentic. On a more positive note, the sound design was excellent and the lighting panels surrounding the set, which displayed different color gradients to indicate time of day, were a nice touch.

 

Overall, How the World Began had great potential and interesting characters but fell short in terms of storytelling and depth of exploration of its central theme. I hope that my next experience at Rivendell will be more fulfilling.

 

Ticket Information

Dates: September 9, 2015-October 10, 2015

Times: Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00pm; Saturdays at 4:00pm

Location: Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, 5779 N. Ridge Avenue in Chicago

Tickets: Call (773) 334-7728 or visit the Rivendell website.

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