In the beginning was the word. The word was also the beginning of storytelling: Any word, or words, strung together to dramatize a memory or a fiction or a conviction.
The hole in the middle of Catherine Trieschmann's new play at Costa Mesa's South Coast Rep, How the World Began, is that in what professes to be a realistic drama set in the temporary high school of a Kansas town recently decimated by a killer tornado, an ensuing debate between a newly hired biology teacher from New York City (Sarah Rafferty) and an emotionally disturbed student (Jarrett Sleeper) — mediated somewhat by the young man's guardian (Time Winters) — lies in the words more than beneath them.
True, there are plausible emotions swirling among the trio, but the play is largely propelled by the Author's Design, which is the ideology of indignance.
So what does Susan Pierce (Rafferty) have to be so indignant about? After pulling the shell-shocked kid, Micah (Sleeper), out from under a classroom desk (pro forma set by Sara Ryung Clement), and after comforting him with an unwitting condescension worthy of the smug professor in David Mamet's Oleanna, Susan finds herself subject to a series of rhetorical questions posited against her by Micah. What did she mean by referring to any theory other than evolution as "balderdash"?
Susan tries out a series of equivocations, ranging from that's not what she said, to that's not what she meant, but she did say it, and she did mean it, and the kid's got witnesses. And so begins a trial of liberalism and its attachment to scientific theory versus the provincial forces of creationism, and the word of God.
There's no problem with all of the characters being somewhat smarmy in their sometimes hidden militance. Likable characters do not necessarily an interesting play make. What's so likable about Richard III or Lady Macbeth?
There's also no problem in the attempt to forge a play of ideas about a topical issue that's largely describing and defining a national chasm of ideas and emotions.
The problem lies in the remedial quality of the debate, in the strategy to determine that, for the sake of dramatic development, everybody onstage is an extremist, even when they pretend not to be. And this is why the play purports to be expanding upon a fascinating conflict when it's actually reducing it to the red-blue camps that are familiar to the point of weariness. This makes Trieschmann's play almost as tendentious as talk radio.
At least from the drama, ably performed under Daniella Topol's direction, one can reflect upon the failure of discourse in this country, which is amply reflected by the failure of discourse in the play.
Discourse, or an attempt at it, comes in the form of Gene Dinkel (Winters), Micah's guardian, who slithers in to befriend Susan with a piece of pie. Though he holds Micah's views, his aim is to get Susan to apologize to Micah for her cavalier dismissal of the local theology in her one classroom remark. This ostensibly makes him a moderate, in light of Micah's demand for a public apology to the entire community in the local newspaper.
So the play evolves into a kind of witch hunt recalling Arthur Miller's The Crucible, about the lunacy in colonial Salem — not exactly a subtle drama itself, but a delicate poem compared to How the World Began.
In Tieschmann's drama, nobody's certainty crumbles. There are revelations that explain why people are so dogged, but if there isn't a character who realizes something new about himself or herself, how can we realize anything new about ourselves? And isn't that among the larger purposes of putting on a play?
HOW THE WORLD BEGAN | By Catherine Trieschmann | Presented by South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa | Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat., Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m. | Through Oct. 16 | (714) 708-5555, scr.org