Sunday, November 4, 2012

"How The World Began"

Photo credit:  The Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company

Playwright:  Catherine Trieschmann

VenueThe Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder, CO

Date of Performance:  Friday, November 2, 2012

Running Time:  2 hours (including 15 minute intermission).

With a title like “How the World Began,” one would expect a pretty ambitious message, and this production delivers exactly that.  Big ideas, a conflict of core beliefs, and outstanding performances come together here to create an uncommonly rewarding theater experience.

Susan Pierce (played with big dollops of sincerity and condescension by Emily Paton Davies) is a pregnant science teacher who has landed in Plainview Kansas after it was devastated by a tornado.  The seventeen fatalities are still open wounds in the community, and it doesn’t take her long to rub some salt in those wounds.

Pierce, the teacher, is on a dual mission here.  She wants to “do some good” by helping Plainview recover from a tragedy.  She also wants to have health insurance to cover the costs for her pregnancy and childbirth.  Mixing motives that are simultaneously altruistic and selfish diminishes her integrity from the outset.

The new teacher gets into a predictable conflict with the rural Plainview community over “how the world began.”  She teaches evolution, partly because it’s required curriculum, but mostly because it’s one of her core beliefs.  When challenged by Micah Staab, one of her students, she quickly becomes ground zero in the "evolution versus creation" debate.   Those two conflicting and mutually exclusive versions of “the truth” are an impregnable barrier between the teacher and her student.  

The script wisely doesn’t focus the debate on the faith and/or facts required for each theory.  Rather, it spotlights the relationships between the two tribes.  The competing “truths” can never be reconciled; only one explanation can be correct.  True believers on both sides cannot compromise without nullifying their most important principles.  It’s a standoff; no minds will be changed by any inconvenient facts or arguments.  That paradox has a profound, and negative, impact on the way the teacher and the student treat each other.

How The World Began” forces us to examine how we relate to those we do not agree with.  Is there a better option than to dig in your heels?  Do we have to reject both the argument and the person as a package?  If we won’t change our core beliefs, can we at least respect those with whom we disagree? 

Emily Paton Davies brings us a Susan who is likeable but flawed.  She’s always the teacher, trying to share her education and wisdom.  To Micah, she comes off as wrong, arrogant, and disrespectful. 

Ryan Wuestawald’s Micah is a sensitive, thoughtful, and capable foil for Susan’s dismissive platitudes.  He stubbornly uses her own words against her, and in some real sense becomes the teacher himself.  Wuestawald and Davies are acting here at a very high level.  Their performances are stellar; they have mastered both their characters and their craft.

The same can be said of Chris Kendall (Gene Dinkel).  He mixes a simple approach with wisdom not learned in a textbook.  He has wit, charm, and humility.  He challenges the teacher and protects the student.  All three actors bring their “A” games to this production. 

Plainview is a metaphor for the reality of the divided, red state/blue state, black and white environment we live in.  “How The World Began” forces us to examine how we treat our philosophical opponents, who also happen to be our neighbors, friends and family. 

Much like Susan and Micah, I am often focused on which is the “truth,” creationism or evolution.  After seeing “How The World Began,” my focus shifted somewhat.  I’m not sure it matters who is right or what the “truth” is.  

What really matters is that it happened.  The world exists.  That much is undisputed.  The world began, we are here, and we must share this world with others.   Perhaps we should make the best of the reality we are born into, instead of becoming missionaries spreading a “truth” about why we are here. 

I could quibble with the script; it takes a little too long to develop, and sometimes it’s preachy.  But those are minor quibbles.  “How The World Began” gives us big ideas, difficult relationships, and thought provoking theater.  Your own personal evolution may begin at the Dairy Center when you see “How The World Began.”  

There can hardly be a better recommendation for a production than that. 


This show runs from November 4 to November 18, with performances Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.  Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company
Director:  Stephen Weitz

Costume Designer:  Reagan Fair

Sound Designer:  Jenn Calvano

Lighting Design:  Richard Spomer


Susan Pierce: Emily Paton Davies

Micah Staab:  Ryan Wuestawald

Gene Dinkel:  Chris Kendall

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