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Science vs. theology generates heated debate in “How the World Began”

Catherine Trieschmann’s play, “How the World Began,” now receiving a topnotch Chicago premiere by the Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, arrives at a most interesting moment.

On the one hand, Pope Francis has been speaking extensively about the way science and religion can coexist, and how such concepts as the Big Bang Theory and Charles Darwin’s ideas about evolution are not to be denied. On the other, in scenes that call to mind the popular play, “Inherit the Wind” (the fictionalized account of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial that resulted in the conviction of a high school teacher in Tennessee for teaching Darwin’s theory to a high school science class), there are still plenty of schools in this country where creationism continues to vie with modern science.


Highly recommended

Through Oct. 10

Where: Rivendell Theatre Ensemble,

5779 N. Ridge

Tickets: $35

Info: (773) 334-7728;

Run time: 95 minutes with no intermission

Curtis Edward Jackson and Rebecca Spence inCatherine Trieschmann’s play, “How the World Began” a Rivendell Theatre Ensemble production. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)
Curtis Edward Jackson and Rebecca Spence inCatherine Trieschmann’s play, “How the World Began” a Rivendell Theatre Ensemble production. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

That ideological clash, as well as a more ordinary form of culture class, is immediately apparent in Trieschmann’s play which is set in the ad hoc office of high school biology teacher Susan Pierce (Rebecca Spence), a new arrival in Plainview, a small town in northwest Kansas recently devastated by a tornado.

A transplant from Brooklyn, Susan, who has fled a bad relationship, and is about five months pregnant. And while she has arrived with a certain degree of altruism about helping a traumatized community, she also is trying to get her own life back on track and needs this job.

Clearly she was not fully prepared to face the “creationism” debate. But when she offhandedly refers to that notion as

“gobbledygook,” one of her students, the emotionally feverish Micah Staab (Curtis Edward Jackson), is deeply offended. And in a manner that might be described as intensely passive-aggressive (and unrelenting), he demands an explanation and an apology. Susan is compassionate and caring, but with her urbane, science-based tuning, she cannot and will not just pacify Micah. And things become even more complicated with the arrival of Gene Dinkel (Keith Kupferer), who serves as unofficial guardian of Micah, whose parents are no longer alive. Dinkel is a meddler, and just where he stands on these matters is not always easy to decipher. And while he cares deeply for Micah, he also is intrigued by Susan.

So, here we have here is a face-off between a teacher and her student – two people tied to very different beliefs and views about the origin (and in one case, destruction and salvation) of the universe. Egos are at stake, but more crucially, as Trieschmann suggests, something far deeper and more existential is at work as well.

Under director Keira Fromm’s expert direction, the actors capture just the right tone. The subtly charismatic Spence has a velvety voice that can suggest countless subtle meanings, and her face is a lovely map of shifting emotions. Jackson, reedy and wired, is eerily focused, with clenched body language that speaks as loudly as his words. And Kupferer brings just the right touch of provincial levity, shrewdness and need to the story.

T.S. Eliot told us that “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.” When it comes to “How the World Began,” there are no whimpers.