The Women’s Project, temporarily housed in the small upstairs Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, has started the new year honorably with Catherine Trieschmann’s How the World Began, directed by Daniella Topol. “Honorably,” I realize, isn’t the earth-shattering adjective that makes producers rejoice by causing box-office stampedes, but it implies a virtue, worth having, that companies today too often lack. We all love to wallow in cheap sensationalism—cheap laughs, cheap sex, cheap violence, arbitrary conflicts jacked up to maximum shriek level for cheap thrills—but only pigs want to spend their entire life wallowing. The honorable artist who can remind us that dignity and quietude also play a role in our lives might be doing us a greater service than the thrill-peddlers.
Much of Trieschmann’s play takes place in exactly such dignity and quietude, but its conflicts, though tidily arranged, never ring false. It keeps its laughs to a terse minimum, leaves its sex and violence to throb as palpable undercurrents, and lets its conflicting ideas clash without arriving at any facile resolution. It gains currency from our uncomfortable awareness that, however settled our own minds might be about the subjects it debates, we’re surrounded by people who make a great deal of media noise and whose views are the obstinate opposite of ours. And it’s always wise to give your opponent credit for sincerity, as Trieschmann does, and to look deep for the source of their seemingly unshakable beliefs.
A small town in rural Kansas has been wrecked by some unspecified disaster, presumably a tornado, and Susan (Heidi Schreck), a young woman with a science degree, has volunteered to come in and help out by teaching high school biology in a makeshift classroom set up near where the local high school used to stand. Urbanized (her degree is from Brooklyn College), unmarried and pregnant, and a staunch unbeliever to boot, Susan instantly finds herself up against not only the area’s ideas of science and religion but also its whole rural web of connections and relationships, built up over decades, which throws her city-bred, individualist instincts into hopeless confusion.
A casual remark she makes on her first day of class, seized on by a hypersensitive student, Micah (Justin Kruger), who has been orphaned by the disaster, swiftly balloons into a local controversy. Susan’s attempts to explain herself without apologizing get her into increasingly hotter water. Well-meaning attempts to mediate by Gene (Adam LeFevre), the genial former postmaster and town busybody with whom Micah has temporarily taken shelter, only succeed in intensifying the complications. Everybody, it turns out, has several supplemental sets of hidden agendas.
Trieschmann captures all this with considerable effectiveness, astutely making sure that every stage in the clash between urban secularism and rural pieties resonates for us in the larger world as well as ratcheting up the tension in Susan’s tiny classroom. Compassionately, she takes pains, too, to grant each viewpoint its share of emotional truth. What makes How the World Began over-tidy, unfortunately, is that she can’t sustain her narrative without making Susan, the intruder whose presence supplies the dramatic conflict, an increasingly rigid figure. So the rationalist has to become irrationally obstinate, the scientist seemingly unobservant, the charitable soul who came in eager to help inexplicably oblivious to the need around her. Susan clearly has a disturbing backstory that might clarify her deepening intransigence, but we only get minimal tastes of it.
Even so, the play holds interest and provokes thought. Topol’s production, apart from some over-dressy between-scenes effects, articulates it well, thanks to three fine performances. Kruger seems too sturdily mature for a vulnerable teenager, but he catches the depth of Micah’s emotionally scrambled turmoil. LeFevre, bulky and twinkly, offers a wonderfully nuanced mix of Santa Claus sweetness, sorrow, and menace. Schreck, whose ability to hold center stage is no surprise at this point, slips ingeniously past the rigidity of the role as written by turning each hardening of Susan’s position into an increased cry of pain. That we have no clue to its source only makes the lesson more salutary. It brings to mind the light-verse poet Phyllis McGinley’s witticism about prejudice: “Intolerance being, ma’am, a state/No tolerant man can tolerate.”