There were two marvelous artistic acts Friday night when the Milwaukee Rep opened "How the World Began" and neither one was actually onstage, although both worked in concert with each other.
The first was the play written by Catherine Trieschmann, who took great big ideas and made them small so that it was easy for the audience to get its arms around it all.
The second was by director Brent Hazelton, who at some point decided to take the road less traveled and let the small live. He didn't feel the need to blow up the balloon and fill it with air until it almost exploded, something that would have been tempting to do.
The art of great theater is to allow an audience to understand, to be moved, to care deeply about the characters. All of that was achieved Friday night.
The big idea of the play is the battle over the origin of the universe.
This is the stuff of legendary oratory and giant political battles. But Trieschmann has narrowed the focus to just three people, and one of them is a kid.
Susan Pierce, played by Deborah Staples, moves to a small town in Kansas, unwed, five months pregnant, a refugee from an urban jungle and finds herself teaching science in a trailer classroom where a school used to be before a tornado ravaged the town.
She makes an offhand comment in her class that student Micah Staab, played by Ben Charles, thinks shows she does not believe that God created the world. Susan had said the leap from non-life to life was the biggest gap in history, "unless, of course, you believe in all that other gobbledygook."
That word – "gobbledygook" is – according to Micah, a slur against his Christian beliefs.
Enter Gene Dinkel, played by Marty Lodge, bearing a lemon meringue pie and a gentle desire to back up Micah, who he and his wife are caring for since the boy is without parents.
With a slow build-up, the issue of an apology and terror for Susan begin to create the kind of war that you see at school board and municipal planning meetings. Those battles are seldom settled by either fact or tact. Instead they fester, scratching under the surface of the skin until the rash is full-blown.
This play is not about creationism or even how the world began. Rather than write a play called "How the World Began," Trieschmann could have written a play called "Should Gays Get Married?" or a play called "Should Abortion Be Legal?"
This play is about belief systems, the compromise that you are asked to make and the rigid structure that you embrace. It is about the safety of profound faith - and that is faith with a small "f" - and about the disquietude that can overcome you when that faith is either challenged or compromised.
Hazelton, who is an associate artistic director at the Rep, allows this play to breathe, to proceed at a pace where we can all ride along without fear of being jolted out of our seats. It is not until the end of the play that the horror of what these well-meaning people have done to each other strikes home.
There are no mean people in this play but meanness abounds.
The actors do fine justice to this play and the youthful Charles seems like every confused teenager you have ever known. He is always certain he is right, even though he may not come close to understanding the issues before him.
Staples, a Rep veteran, gives her character a quirky uncertainty about life but a willingness to stick up for what she thinks is right at this particular moment in time. She carries her little baby bump with delightful grace.
This is a smart play that nibbles around the edges of a thoughtful display of dogma and there are lessons to be learned here. One of those lessons is that great theater doesn't have to be big, it just has to be great.
"How the World Began" runs through Feb. 24.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as OnMilwaukee.com keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.
Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.