South Coast Repertory's How The World Began accomplishes a small miracle: it takes a controversial subject, tackles it enough to be compelling drama, and yet never alienates its audience.
The issue in the title of the world-premiere play - written by Catherine Trieschmann and directed by Daniella Topol - is and always will be contentious. That makes it particularly thorny territory for the stage. How does a playwright (or an actor, or a director, for that matter) present both sides of the debate thoroughly enough to make for a substantive experience, but without appearing to favor one side or the other? Or offending someone along the way? SCR has taken the extra step of publishing an advisory that the production "isn’t for theatregoers who might feel uncomfortable with views on evolution."
But How The World Began isn't a lecture, thankfully. It's a fantastic piece of dramatic art, because of three outstanding actors who take the material and get everything they can out of it. No matter what you think about the subject, you must appreciate a trio of people who epitomize the idea of leaving their hearts out on the stage. In fact, what they do in their relatively short time (an hour and 40 minutes, to be exact) is everything I love about theatre.
Susan Pierce (Sarah Rafferty) has moved from New York to the recently tornado-ravaged town of Plainview, Kansas, to restart her life as a high school biology teacher. Susan hasn't quite grasped that rural Kansas is a lot different from the big city, and so makes an unwise offhand comment in her class about the origins of life on Earth, saying that it's a huge inexplicable gap "unless you believe in all that other gobbledy gook." The words offend the religious beliefs of several of her pupils, in particular the troubled Micah Staab (Jarrett Sleeper). Micah presses Susan about her comments, then Micah's guardian Gene Dinkel (Time Winters) gets involved, and one phrase ends up creating a firestorm in the small town of Plainview.
I've said in my reviews of Suits how much I've enjoyed Sarah Rafferty, and while Susan Pierce is a completely different character from that of Donna Paulsen, she's just as good in this play as she is every week on television. Her Susan is a three-dimensional person; we don't just see her in this specific moment, but we come to understand who she was before and how it makes perfect sense that she'd end up in this predicament. After all, as she's played, she's got that dangerous combination of aloofness and attitude. Rafferty's performance is all the more remarkable when one considers that she's giving it with commitment and ferocity while she, like her character, is expecting.
Jarrett Sleeper has the trickiest character in Micah Staab. As he's written, it would be easy for Micah to come off as annoying, and alienate the audience from not just his character but that entire side of the subject matter - which would defeat the purpose of the play. As he's played, however, Micah wins over the hearts of the audience and injects humanity into these grand concepts being debated. He isn't just looking for an answer from Susan, but he's looking for one in his entire life, and that's something we can all identify with. There's a heartbreaking desperation in Sleeper's performance that is impossible not to feel. You might not agree with what he has to say, but you're going to get in his head and understand why he says it, which is infinitely more valuable.
That brings me to Time Winters as Gene Dinkel. At first glance, the character is so on the nose - no doubt, exactly the type of person Susan expected she'd be meeting when she arrived in Plainview. It's another role that could easily go the wrong way in the wrong hands. But the veteran Winters - who's been around the theatre block some two hundred times - doesn't even come close. His character's aware of how Susan (and by extension, the audience) perceives him, and Winters plays with that throughout the show, giving Gene depth that I don't think the script had in it.
This is the brilliance of theatre - that you can see outstanding individual performances like these three actors give, without that fourth wall that exists in television or film. There's a visceral experience that happens as it all unfolds with nothing to separate the audience from the content. At some point, the only thought going through my head was, "I am watching these three people be truly brilliant."
All three actors are required to have their unlikeable moments, as none of the characters are blameless in the equation. There are numerous times when at least one of them exacerbates the burgeoning situation. It can be aggravating. Yet therein lies a certain genius about How The World Began. The characters are in turns right and wrong, likeable and abrasive, because the play is not favoring one over the others. To do so would be championing a side. Trieschmann's script doesn't want you to make up your mind - in fact, it wants to show you that it can be impossible to do so.
You're not going to come out of How The World Began with an answer. You're going to leave with more questions. You will be provoked to thought. You'll be richer for the experience. And that's theatre at its finest.
How The World Began runs at South Coast Repertory through October 16, 2011. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the South Coast Repertory website. If you missed it, check out my interview with Jarrett Sleeper, where we go behind the scenes of this world-premiere play.