On the surface, the conflict between acceptance of science and adherence to faith is a rich and volatile topic. Like well-matched boxers in a ring, Treischmann’s script gives both points of view plenty of room to spar.
Susan is an urban expatriate, single, four months pregnant and trying to rebuild her life with a high school teaching job in a Kansas farm town recently devastated by a natural disaster. Intelligent, sensitive and somewhat guarded, she is nonetheless eager to connect, be fair and make things work.
Micah, one of her students, is struggling with his own emotional issues around loss of family and reconciliation with his faith. Like a terrier with a bone, he seizes on a thoughtless comment Susan makes in class. His unyielding interpretation, compounded by well-meaning interference from Gene, his adult caretaker, launch a fascinating spiral of conversations and unexpected consequences.
The play makes keen observations on things people take for granted about both the primary topic and human interaction in general. The emotional tone of conversations between the characters often pivot dramatically on a single word. Light banter gives way to a not-unreasonable paranoid discomfort, when you find someone seems to know more about you than they probably should.
Agreeing to disagree seems impossible. Personal investment in long-held principles continually begs the question, “How can I be right if you’re not wrong?” Still, the need for resolution compels the characters to dance to subtle strains of debate and persuasion. Time after time, they tentatively approach unfamiliar common ground until one or the other missteps – sometimes explosively – and all retreat and need to start over.
Mary McGloin (Susan), Malcolm Rodgers (Gene) and Tim Garcia (Micah) all deliver strong performances as guided by director Leah S. Abrams.
In Susan, McGloin brings a tightly-wound nervous energy to her playing. She’s a bit fragile. She can also be self-deprecatingly funny, earnest, occasionally glib and capable of mustering steely resolve or deep compassion as the situation demands.
As her principal sparring partner, Garcia’s Micah carries himself with an intense inward-facing woundedness, a depth of lonely pain he cannot reveal. So he shields himself with an unflinching insistence on righteous accuracy that keeps him isolated and in perpetual conflict.
Trying to mitigate the situation to his own standards, Rodgers offers an artfully annoying decency in the underestimated Gene who, while smarter than he initially projects, is just as guilty of underestimating those around him.
How the World Began
Presented by Custom Made Theatre Co.
Where: Gough Street Playhouse, 1620 Gough St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays; closes March 8
Tickets: $20 to $40
Contact: (415) 798-2682, www.custommade.org