What is the best way to set the stage for "How The World Began"? Glorious images from the Hubble space telescope? Renaissance paintings based on the opening chapters of Genesis? No, when the lights go up on the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's production of Catherine Trieschmann's play, winds are howling across the Kansas prairie outside a well-worn modular classroom.
The poster on the wall displaying the face of Charles Darwin is not a coincidence. The quote on the poster sounds almost Calvinist: "A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life." Two thirds of the cast is already on stage: one biology teacher, from New York, plus one student, a devout evangelical Christian who is tormented by the way his prayers have been answered.
Susan Pierce, pregnant, single (it didn't work out), is convincingly played by Deborah Staples. Pierce signed up for a rural teaching program while completing her certification. Ben Charles develops the role of Micah Staab with passion; the script might have given Micah a few lines that were not so loaded with tension. He is deeply concerned by an off-hand remark during a lecture on abiogenesis, "unless you believe in all that gobbledegook."
A performance like this could have attempted to rise to glorious heights of triumph and mutual understanding. Or, it could have degenerated into a sterile exchange of trite cliches, however well-balanced. Instead, Trieschmann has done something more difficult, and more rewarding. Three flawed human beings spend ninety minutes being their flawed human selves.
It is unlikely that any audience could leave feeling inspired or fulfilled. As the playwright observed, writing this script "was an attempt to understand living in rural Kansas," where her husband teaches Philosophy of Science at a state university. Trieschmann tries to write "complicated, sympathetic, frustrating, flawed, feeling characters." In "How The World Began" she has succeeded.
The third character, Gene Dinkel, played by Marty Lodge, is the fulcrum on which the more strident ideological expressions balance, imperfectly. His folksy manners clash with the New York sophistication of Pierce, but his Christian faith and views of science have a genial moderation that keep the entire conversation from flying apart.
Pierce's pregnancy is deftly woven into the tale, touching ever so briefly on the pro-life sentiment common in rural Kansas, without a second controversy taking center stage, and ultimately serves to affirm the common humanity of all concerned, imperfectly. It also becomes clear, in time, that God is not a security blanket.
"How The World Began" will be running through February 24 at the Stiemke Studio, in the Patty and Jay Baker theater complex between Wells, Kilbourn, and Water streets, in downtown Milwaukee. The complex is one block from bus stops on Wisconsin Avenue for the 30 and 10 MCTS lines, as well as being directly accessible to lines 15, 57, and the Green express line.