It hardly matters that the entire play is about the battle between those who believe in evolution and those who believe in creationism.
It could just as easily be about abortion, gun control or capital punishment.
And it takes a fearless theater like Next Act to tackle all of these questions without having the need to wrap things up in a bow and send us all home happy.
The play is is Stephen Massicotte’s "Ten Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher About Evolution," and it opened Friday night.
David Cecsarini, who acts in the play, is the artistic director at Next Act, and he’s built a reputation for staging plays that inspire thought, tackle burning issues and sometimes even make us uncomfortable.
He’s hit a home run with this production under the direction of Shawn Douglass.
Theater in general – and especially theater that deals with hot button issues – invariably has a good guy and a bad guy. Pro-lifers are stupid fundamentalists. Death penalty opponents are guilty of coddling criminals.
Not here. Not this time. In this one, everybody’s got a leg to stand on, and there are no evildoers.
The play is set in a high school biology classroom, presided over by Ms. Kelly (Deborah Staples). The lone student, being held after class, is Ray (Kyle Curry).
The curriculum guide has moved to a discussion of the theory of evolution. Ray has been disruptive in class, and after some prodding, he admits that he has a religious objection to evolution. He believes it was all God. Ms. Kelly, who has a masters degree, doesn’t.
Ray has submitted a list of 10 questions about evolution/biology that he wants answered.
The first question is: "Why do textbooks claim that the 1953 Miller-Urey experiment shows how life's building blocks may have formed on the early Earth – when conditions on the early Earth were probably nothing like those used in the experiment and the origin of life remains a mystery?"
All of the questions are just as complex and mind boggling. Ms. Kelly is not amused, and we are off and running. Nobody needs to tell anyone what the arguments are. We’ve heard them for decades. No surprises.
The classroom designed by William Boles and lit by the genius of Jason Fassl, has an ambience that we all remember.
Cecsarini plays the principal who has two goals in life: keep the peace and get a date with Ms. Kelly.
Mary MacDonald Kerr plays Ray’s devout mother who is worried about her son's behavior, which isn't always in line with the good Christian boy she wants him to be.
The surprise in this play is that nobody comes off right and nobody comes off wrong. It is so refreshing to see a production that gives weight to both faith and to science. Douglass steers this ship through stormy waters that don’t even come close to capsizing this boat.
This production is eloquent testimony to the fact that when you put a bunch of great actors on a stage, the results are going to be awfully good.
Staples is a marvel. From the earliest going, we know there is something going on inside of her that causes some kind of anguish. She is firm and funny and resolute in her beliefs. Staples gives Ms. Kelly the kind of eloquentand elegant touch we wish all teachers had.
Curry is an adult, but he’s got the 17-year-old boy down cold. And he gives this kid some real depth. He is certain of his faith and of his mission to save those who have been hurt. Ms. Kelly is his target, and he is earnest in his hopes for her, despite her protestations.
Kerr shows what a marvelous actor can do with a part that could well be a stereotype. We all have a vision of the born-again Christian, moral majority shouting until we can’t stand their noise anymore. But Kerr finds reason in her faith, not just blind acceptance. It’s a unique and vibrant take on a woman of faith.
Cecsarini is just the kind of middle ground that this play needs. He’s a compromiser and just wants everyone to get along. He’s also incredibly accurate in his portrayal of an interim principal at a high school.
Faith – and non-faith – are troublesome subjects for discussion and for theater. The people sitting in the audience most likely have already made up their minds on the issue.
But this play makes you feel proud, no matter what you either believe or don’t believe. These actors and director are adamant that there is value in all of it. We are all valued. It’s an eloquent testimony to a world where what you believe is for you. It may not be for everyone, but if that’s what you believe, it’s okay with me.
"Ten Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher About Evolution" runs through May 3, and information on showtimes and tickets can be found here.
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.
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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.