Rivendell Theatre produces works by, with, and about women. That’s the mission and the brand. But the company’s two most recent shows introduce a surprising subniche: works by, with, and about women and centered on teenage boys.
It’s not nearly as perverse as it may sound. In April, Rivendell gave us the world premiere of Look, We Are Breathing, Laura Jacqmin’s play in which the mother, teacher, and would-be girlfriend of a high school athlete try to cope with his death in a drunk-driving accident. Now here’s How the World Began, Catherine Trieschmann’s cannily told tale of a high school teacher who finds her class and then her life upended by a male student’s complaint that she insulted his Christian beliefs.
Trieschmann’s teacher, Susan, has just transplanted herself from New York to a tiny Kansas hamlet called Plainview, where she’s been engaged to lead science classes. Plainview isn’t just Podunk, it’s pulverized. A tornado ripped through recently, leveling buildings and killing 17 people. Susan maintains it was altruism that’s brought her there—that she offered her services after hearing about the catastrophe. But inasmuch as she’s five months pregnant and vague about the father except to say he’s out of the picture, we can assume she’s suffered an emotional tornado or two of her own. When one of Susan’s students—a literal orphan of the storm named Micah—accuses her of calling his Bible-believing worldview “gobbledygook,” a certain amount of High Plains hell breaks loose.
Trieschmann does a skillful job of capturing the combination of intellectual tenacity and emotional diffidence that characterizes a kid like Micah. Having lost a parent when I was about his age, I know how isolated he feels, how much emotion he’s internalized or deflected into obsessions, and what weird, self-torturing places his train of thought visits as it careens all but unstoppably through his adolescent brain. Every bit of that is apparent in Micah’s dialogue. More, it’s neatly expressed by Curtis Edward Jackson’s hunched, high-voiced, eyes-anywhere-but-forward performance under Keira Fromm’s direction.
There’s a similar precision to Susan’s urban, rationalist condescension as she first discounts, then attempts to contain, and finally reacts to Micah’s challenge. Neither Treischmann nor Rebecca Spence’s finely drawn Susan supply the easy Enlightenment version of a happy ending that they must certainly know their audience expects. The final passage of How the World Began, therefore, comes as a shock.
It also comes as something of a revelation in the context provided by Rivendell’s previous show. Both Look, We Are Breathing and this play concern women struggling with identities that are as much self-imposed as socially sanctioned. That those struggles are catalyzed by run-ins with teenage boys gives them an added poignancy. Because boys are the future of men, aren’t they? v