When you inherit the wind, hold onto your hat: You never know where you might end up. Or do you? I’m speaking, of course, about the 1955 play Inherit the Wind, written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee and dramatizing the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, which pitted prosecutor William Jennings Bryan against defense attorney Clarence Darrow in a Tennessee court case that questioned whether evolution could be taught in public schools up against the supreme word of God. Along with the ritual reading of To Kill a Mockingbird, classroom viewings of the 1960 film version of the play, starring Spencer Tracy and Gene Kelly, have become a public-school right of passage in blue states, where every now and again a combative doctrinaire pupil, with his frothing parents and church in tow, will challenge some poor schmuck of a science teacher teaching Darwin and natural selection from a textbook.
Playwright Catherine Trieschmann inherits the wind in her play How the World Began, a three-person play now being staged at the Lord/Leebrick Playhouse by Oregon Contemporary Theatre under the capable direction of Christina Allaback. Whereas the suspense and dramatic oomph of Inherit the Wind resided in the fantastic courtroom antics of both attorneys, Trieschmann opts to tone down the rhetoric, sort of, while amping up the personal psychology that underlies a classroom confrontation between religious dogma and scientific explanation.
Micah (Zar Oelke) is a young student in a rural midwestern town recently devastated by a tornado. Although Micah survived the storm, he lost his family and home, and he has been unofficially adopted by Gene (James Aday), an elderly gentleman who, at first glance, seems to have walked right out of The Andy Griffith Show. As portrayed by Oelke, Micah is an intense kid, given to terse interrogations that dispense with all small talk. When he hears his teacher, Susan (Mary Unruh), refer to non-scientific theories about the origin of the Earth “gobbledegook,” Micah goes on the offensive. As their after-school conversations ramp up, becoming more and more confrontational, Susan, an unwed pregnant New York transplant, grows increasingly aware of her social isolation.
Enter Gene, who comes bearing lemon meringue pie for the new teacher only to spring his own agenda on her; with Micah’s school notebook in tow, he explains the young boy’s difficult position and asks only that Susan apologize for calling Micah’s beliefs nonsense. And around and around it goes, until a dangerous act of drunken vandalism/terrorism tips the scales.
Trieschmann has a good ear for dialogue, and for the subtle linguistic nuances that undergird the personal signifiers of class and religious faith. Her depiction of Gene, a well-meaning and childless man about town, is particularly compelling, and the way she paints the urbane but unprepared Susan into a corner is interesting. And yet, much about How the World Began seems overloaded and over-determined: pregnant unwed mother, meddling Barney Fife-type and Slingblade-ish overwrought teenager vie for understanding and an upper hand, and along with the great stakes come too many unresolved moments sprung willy-nilly (what up with that surprise ending?). To locate the sources of religious fanaticism in Freudian trauma — and, what’s more, to make that trauma something of a shaggy dog story — seems to defeat the purpose of a play that begs for us all to get along.
How the World Began runs through March 24 at Lord/Leebrick Playhouse; $15-$26.