How The World Began is a story of the misunderstanding and miscommunication that occurs when two mutually exclusive world views clash. We are in a biology classroom in small-town Plainview, Kansas. The town, recently devastated by a tornado, is in the process of recovery – school is back in session and people are trying to move on, despite the deaths of “the seventeen” lost in the storm. Dropped into this close-knit community is Susan (Anna Francolini), a five-month pregnant and unmarried science teacher from cosmopolitan Manhattan. A throwaway remark about views other than Darwinism – using the word ‘gobbledygook’ – confuses her serious young student Micah (Perry Millward), whose difficult past has left him fragile and intense. Initially searching just for clarification of his teacher’s words, Micah and Susan get deeper and deeper into discussions that run in on themselves like a tangled ball of string, each ending false and only leading to another round of debate. As the student cross-examines his teacher, he is more ‘scientific’ and logical than she is, subjecting her to intense, detailed scrutiny. The well-meaning intervention of townsman Gene (Ciaran McIntyre) on Micah’s behalf serves only to irritate Micah, who feels patronised. In Gene, Triechmann presents another side to the religious beliefs of the town – although he also believes the world was created in seven days, Gene points to the New Testament as his example, rather than Micah’s hellfire and brimstone Old Testament vision of God, and admits he has read only some of the Bible. The relationships between the three characters is never static and the constantly changing emotions of each keeps the otherwise simple story – and the audience – on edge.
The sparks of the conflict between teacher and student are felt by the whole Plainview community. Susan, who reveals herself as something of a snob, scoffing at ‘community college education’ and contemptuous of Micah and Gene’s Bible literalism, becomes ever more bewildered and angry by the situation. She is backed further and further into a corner and, after a drunken school-kid prank at her home, feels unsafe in the town. Micah, played completely convincingly by Millward, appears driven by an internal force to destroy his teacher’s career before it has even begun, but as the play progresses we learn more of Micah’s real motives – his apparent desire to destroy Susan is revealed instead as missionary zeal to save her from the wrath of the vengeful Almighty, of which Micah lives in daily fear.
The piece is tightly written and the dialogue well-delivered. Voice coach Marj McDaid has worked well with the cast, whose New York and Kansas accents are (even to my untrained ear) consistent and distinct. The piece, although engaging, is dialogue-heavy with little movement on stage. The characters’ already intense conversations are made more so by the confined space of the trailer-classroom. A combination of the static nature of the stage and the running time of over ninety minutes (at least the night I was there) is a challenge to the concentration at points, although the actors move through their lines with good pace.
The impact of the central theme – Intelligent Design vs. Darwinism – would, I imagine, be more obvious in the US than here, where the debate is mainly academic. There are no large communities of Intelligent Design-believers on this side of the pond and personally, I felt quite separate from something that I know is a point of serious contention in the US. Despite this, the play’s central questions of how one should (or shouldn’t) deal with people whose beliefs contradict one’s own, and how education has a crucial role to play in equipping people to talk about these contradictions, is extremely relevant to everyone, UK audiences included. Alongside that, the play is well worth watching precisely for the glimpse it affords into US culture at this point in time. Of course, if you actually want to know how the world began then this play won’t help – but it will raise many interesting points along the way.
The European première of Catherine Trieschmann’s How The World Began, presented by Tom Atkins, directed by Des Kennedy and supported by Out of Joint, Arts Council England and the Royal Victoria Hall Foundation, is at the Arcola until 10 December 2011. For more information and tickets, see the Arcola Theatre website.