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School Days
Two plays find theatrical worlds in classroom politics.

Deborah Staples and Ben Charles in the Milwaukee Rep's "How the World Began."
(photo by Michael Brosilow)

The Kansas prairie wind is the first thing you hear in the Milwaukee Rep’s shattering production of How the World Began. At least it seems so at first, but the quiet whoosh of a wheat field breeze gradually works its way into a frenzied maelstrom, a sublime force of nature in the darkest, most awe-inducing sense of the word.

And when the sound is clipped into stillness, you can still see the aftermath of that awe on the face of Micah Staab (Ben Charles) as he meekly approaches his new science teacher with a seemingly innocent question:  What did she mean when she referred to non-scientific theories about the origin of life as “gobbledy-gook”?

Charles’ performance as the troubled Kansas high school student is one of many riches of this production of Catherine Trieschmann’s 2011 play, which moves quickly from a CNN talking-head debate to a riveting examination of the nature of faith and belief.

Don’t be fooled by the play’s set up. It is indeed about a New Yorker with vague liberal tendencies, and her journey into the heartland. Susan Pierce (played with razor intensity by Deborah Staples) arrives in Plainview, Kansas, prepared to teach science in a farm town that has been recently devastated by tornadoes (Scott Davis’s set, a temporary trailer classroom, evokes both the simplicity and expanse of Kansas life). She is indeed challenged by a student over her off-the-cuff dismissal of Creationism. But the play quickly goes deeper than the typical Red State-Blue State grudge match so common to today’s political discourse. Trieschmann is a savvy writer who understands the assumptions we bring to the story, and she knows how to play on and embrace the clichés, then rip off the veneer so we see the rawer stuff beneath—stuff that is the very essence of our humanity.

Director Brent Hazelton has a sure hand on the particular rhythms of How the World Began. Watch the scene in which Pierce sits down with Micah’s guardian, Gene Dinkel (the superbly subtle Marty Lodge), and the two share forkfuls of a lemon meringue pie, folksiness giving way to rancor with every bite.

It’s a journey of steady escalation, and Hazelton and his cast bring its final moving moments with intelligence and heart. It’s not an ending of hope or reconciliation, but in suggesting the gulf that separates us, How the World Began represents the kind of clear-eyed vision we need to come together.

* * *

A very different classroom can be found a few blocks south, in Renaissance Theatreworks’ revival of Educating Rita, the beloved 1980 play by Willy Russell. Rather than the Red-State-Blue-State divide, the social chasm here is created by the good ol’ English class system, and the pair walking the wobbly rope bridge that spans it are a down-and-out professor of English, and an eager hairdresser who is weary of a life consisting of wash-and-set gossip and sing-a-longs at the local pub.

Things have changed in the 30 years since the play made a star of Julie Walters (she originated the role in London and starred with Michael Caine in the film version). The idea that the path to self-improvement begins with a familiarity of T.S. Eliot and E.M. Forster seems positively quaint today, particularly in America, where self-help is still a major industry and national obsession, but rarely involves learning about poetic assonance or Ibsen’s Peer Gynt.

Jonathan Smoots and Cristina Panfilio in Renaissance Theatreworks' "Educating Rita."

Director Jenny Wanasek wisely doesn’t turn the play into a period piece (Rita sports an iPhone as one of her considerable and colorful fashion accessories—designed by Alex Tacoma), and keeps the focus on the struggle of the two characters to make the most of their lives. Frank is obviously an accomplished scholar, which unfortunately means he knows his attempts at writing poetry are inadequate, and his self-loathing has brought a variety of Scotch whiskeys to share his shelves alongside his novels and anthologies. Rita’s effort to “better herself” earns her the antipathy of friends and family. The collision of these two forces creates somewhat predictable results. But that doesn’t mean the fireworks along the way aren’t a pleasure to behold.

Jonathan Smoots appropriately tones down his impressive classical acting chops to give Frank a blustery and disheveled cynicism that’s a perfect foil for Rita’s full-speed-ahead enthusiasm. As played by Cristina Panfilio, Rita is more hummingbird than bull in Frank’s academic china shop. She flits curiously around the musty traditions of Frank’s world, eventually gaining confidence as she finds her true self among the noble tomes or Lit-rah-cher.

Ultimately, Educating Rita is still something of a fairy tale. While Rita’s impulse to learn is initially grounded in burning “What’s it all about?” questions, her final triumph seems more about social uplift than confronting existential truths. And Rita’s social ascendance is limited at best. If Russell was prescient about anything in his play, it’s predicting the growth of a currently booming academic profession. In the end, Rita gives up her place at the salon to work in a coffee shop. 

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