Arts & Events

Theater Review: 'How the World Began' at Custom-Made Theatre

Ken Bullock
Friday March 06, 2015 - 04:39:00 PM

A Brooklyn schoolteacher, leaving a botched personal life behind--though more than memories follow her, as she's "in the family way"--takes a job in a Kansas town rebuilding from tornado devastation, and the big city teacher finds herself questioned by the stepson of one of the tornado victims, a young man traumatized too by the physical impact of the storm, about a casual aside she made during class, something she doesn't remember, while explaining the origin and early development of the earth--and the student wants an apology for what he regards as a slander to his god. 

Summarized, Catherine Treischmann's play 'How the World Began' sounds like another, updated edition of 'Six Days or Forever,' maybe just a more psychological chamber version of the hit Broadway courtroom drama and movie of yore that depicted the Scopes trial in Tennessee, a decisive moment in 20th century American public education. 

But as 'How the World Began' develops--rather quietly, with more easy-going humor and a little tartness than controversy and speeches--contradictions surface, both in the memories of the almost non-event, the reactions of teacher and student (hers, often bristly and dismissive; his, oddly conciliatory yet insistent) and of his "guardian," the local who's taken the boy into his home, a folksy fellow and locus of gossip who the boy treats with disdain. 

It's a well-constructed, carefully involuted three-hander play, which has found a good and timely production with Custom-Made Theatre, directed by its executive director Leah Abrams, with Bay Area native (and current Brooklyn resident) Mary McGloin as the teacher, Tim Garcia as the student and Malcolm Rodgers as his somewhat hapless guardian, trying to neatly tie it all together.  

McGloin has good presence as the teacher, trying to keep her own balance as she reacts with a combination of sympathy and her own disdain, both personal and professional, deepening the chain of events and revelations she tries to avoid confronting. Her performance is also a bit too suburban, lacking the insouciance and aggressiveness of the big city woman confronted and impatient with small town concerns and provincial "politicking." 

Tim Garcia delineates the reactions of the young, orphaned student very well, showing his intensity and callow, awkward sense of fairness, his desire to communicate and his underlying guilt and religious mania, occasionally repetitive in his mannerisms. 

In what turns out to be the swing role that enriches the action and dialogue, propelling the story forward, Malcolm Rodgers--a fine actor with range and maturity--plays the nuances of the boy's self-appointed step-parent and community spokesman and "fixer" with deadpan humor (both the character's and his own) and employs the man's genial cluelessness, which opens up behind a curtain of chatty affability and homespun brokering skills, as the communal backdrop to the little drama between student and teacher, which revolves around various degrees of incomprehension to what's perhaps the beginning of some kind of intuitive resolution. 

Through the window behind Erik LaDue's schoolroom set, Colin Johnson's lighting brings the sky and sunsets of the Midwest into the theater, almost as another, silent character, one observing the petty goings-on of the people under the now-benign heavens that can open up in disaster. 

'How the World Began' is a Bay Area premiere, in its last weekend. Another Treischmann play just had its Bay Area premiere in a brief run by Virago Theater at the Flight Deck in Uptown Oakland.  

Friday and Saturday nights at 8, closing performance this Sunday at 7, at the Gough Street Playhouse, 1620 Gough at Bush, adjoining Trinity/St. Peter's Episcopal Church, San Francisco. $32-$50. (415) 798-2682;