Here is the school. Here is the steeple.

A God versus Darwin grudge match

Ryan Wuestawald and Emily Paton Davies
Photo courtesy of Michael Ensminger

The year is 2243. The Philadelphia Eagles have just won their first Super Bowl. And much to everyone’s surprise, God himself decides to take a leisurely stroll down 5th Avenue in New York City (now known as Little Beijing) with his arm ensconced firmly in the backside of the corpse of Charles Darwin. Using Darwin as possibly the most disconcerting hand puppet in history, God makes Darwin mouth his theory of evolution like some sort of divine Jeff Dunham.

Even if such an unprecedented, incontrovertible turn of events were to occur, it is likely that the debate about religion versus science would continue, at least in some circles, unabated. Call it what you will. Faith versus reason. God versus Darwin. Creationism versus evolution. It’s one of the most contentious topics around. The latest from Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company (BETC), How the World Began, takes on this hot-button issue, and once again BETC proves itself to be one of the Front Range theatre scene’s best and brightest.

Never before has one play gotten so much mileage from the word “gobbledygook.” When a brand new teacher at a rural Kansas high school nonchalantly and, in her mind at least, innocently refers to any theory contravening the theory of evolution as gobbledygook, it opens a can of Dune-sized worms. The teacher, Ms. Pierce (Emily Paton Davies), is confronted by a student, Micah Staab (Ryan Wuestewald), about the inflammatory word and its implications, and it eventually becomes clear that Micah’s staunch belief in God and Genesis (the book, not the band) have been much offended by Ms. Pierce’s pronouncement.

As first Micah and then his de facto father, Gene Dinkel (Chris Kendall), try to wrestle an apology from the bemused Ms. Pierce, matters begin to escalate. Micah, who has endured great loss in the recent past, becomes angrier and more unhinged with every minute that Ms. Pierce refuses to abandon her belief in the sanctity of science. Mr. Dinkel approaches the matter far more calmly with an almost oily, small-town charm. He comes bearing not only lemon meringue pies and hoary homilies but also a very specific agenda.

The acting in How the World Began is a wonder to behold. With every scene set in a high school classroom and all the “action” consisting of discussions and arguments about either the creationism debate or the three characters’ beliefs about it, this is an actor’s play. It is quite nearly a pure character study demanding complete commitment from the three thespians.

Davies, who is in virtually every scene, plays Ms. Pierce with such assurance that I felt like I’d sat in her class before. Chris Kendall’s homespun yokel is so completely believable that it boggles the mind that this same actor played an equally credible Brooklyn rabbi mere weeks ago on the very same stage. And as the troubled teenager, Wuestewald disappears into the part.

How the World Began is nothing if not thought-provoking. At intermission, the lobby was abuzz with people already dissecting the play and its central issue. One man marveled at the idea that the fossil record was placed by God for Man to find simply as a test of faith. Another realized that, like Ms. Pierce, he tended to stereotype firm believers in religion as unintelligent. If you’re looking for a show to stimulate conversation, this one is the ticket.

How the World Began’s only shortcomings stem from playwright Catherine Trieschmann’s tendency toward triteness. Does the champion of evolution really need to be an unwed, pregnant teacher from New York City with the surname Pierce recently transplanted to the hinterlands? Must her adversaries be angry young and folksy old shit-kicking hicks? Must every other scene devolve into a cross-examination covering the same basic issue time and again? Inherit the Wind proves that the answer to those questions is a resounding “no.”

The play’s inherent weaknesses aside, BETC’s production of it is a triumph. Director Stephen Weitz gets the most from cast, crew and material. Whether you’re a Young Earther or have journeyed to the Galapagos in devotion to Darwin, you’ll find something to like about How the World Began.

Visit the BETC website for tickets.