Playwright Joe DiPietro has approached the controversial subject of creationism versus evolution in his engrossing and provocative play “Creating Claire,” now having its world premiere at the George Street Playhouse. The inevitable conflict between science and religion, the narrow bridge between rational thinking and irrational behavior, are considered within a dramatic context that is certainly intended to instigate some heated debates. DiPietro stated in a recent feature story (U.S. 1, May 12, “When Science and Religion Collide”) that he was inspired to write the play after reading a newspaper story about a group of religious fanatics who went to an “Evolution of Life” tour during which they grilled the guide with questions the guide was not prepared to answer.
One character in DiPietro’s play is prepared to answer the questions. She is Victoria Halstead (Lynn Cohen), the head of a science museum in upstate New York. Cohen gives a stunningly persuasive performance as the aggressively intellectual core of “Creating Claire.”
Under David Saint’s responsive direction, this purposefully discursive play is also a complex consideration of how the parents of an autistic child confront that challenge and at the same time face the irreversible evolution of their relationship. This is heady material, but DiPietro has a good grip on the spiritual, emotional, and psychological factors that determine our choices and beliefs. As it is revealed, many people are, indeed, prompted by their own personal needs as they are by a fervent desire to either enlighten or influence others. A good portion of the play is comprised of polemical confrontations. And that is not necessarily a detriment, but rather a keen device that poses opposing positions with formidable impact.
It comes as a considerable shock to Victoria when she hears that Claire Buchanan (Barbara Walsh), one of the part-time docents and her close friend, has been straying from the prescribed lecture. Without question, Claire’s digressions are of a religious/philosophical nature and have no place in an institution devoted strictly to science and particularly to Darwin’s theory/explanation of the origin of the universe. Claire’s unprecedented statements are a blow to Victoria. The break-up of their friendship is especially difficult for Victoria, as seen in the light of the impending death of her partner-in-life.
It’s wonderful to see Cohen, who was last seen at George Street in “Do I Hear a Waltz” and more recently in New York in Tina Howe’s “Chasing Manet,” all fired up with ferocity and with heartfelt conviction, take on someone who would choose to compromise the standards of the museum and the standards and beliefs by which she lives.
Claire, a former teacher and proclaimed agnostic, has elected to stay home with Abigail (Celia Keenan-Bolger) her 16-year-old seriously autistic daughter. It is clear that Abigail is not demonstrating any signs of improvement, a fact that Claire chooses to ignore.
Keenan-Bolger, who was a Tony nominee for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” is playing the role she originated when “Creating Claire” was workshopped last summer at the Cape Cod Theater Project in Falmouth, Massachusetts. Her astounding performance, an awesome mix of obsessive-compulsive behavior and motor-mouthed repetitiveness, is also charged with a desperation and poignancy that come to the fore in her Facebook chat-room search for someone to love.
Walsh’s performance is notable for the way she cloaks Claire’s feelings of failure in denial. We can begin to suspect how Claire’s desperation for answers prompts her toward a kind of religiosity that she had previously found incompatible. It should be noted that Walsh, who was lauded for “Falsettos” and more recently in the John Doyle production of “Company,” stepped into the role of Claire during rehearsals when originally cast Sandy Duncan became ill.
Michael Countryman is affecting as Claire’s husband, Reggie, a high school history teacher and a confirmed atheist who is initially dumbfounded not only by Claire’s actions but also as it is suddenly impacting their 21-year marriage. Countryman has many fine moments as Reggie, but none sadder than watching him see the woman he fell in love with and is still in love with move on with apparently no regrets.
If Claire seems driven to infiltrate the museum’s strictly science policy, she seems to have no feeling or sensitivity toward those whose lives she has irresponsibly decided to sacrifice in the wake of her mission. There are glimmers in “Creating Claire” of Rachel Crother’s (1937) “Susan and God” (there was a fine revival by the Mint Theater in 2006), in which a woman seeks refuge in religion in order to avoid dealing with issues with her husband and daughter.
What is it that has provoked Claire to suddenly introduce the “intelligent design” theory at the museum? How consumed and motivated is Claire by this revelatory thinking that she sues the museum so that she can say that an “intelligent designer” could be at the back of the big bang? DiPietro is an intelligent and excellent writer and subtly provides hints as to why Claire is willing to sacrifice her marriage and a long-standing friendship. We can see in Walsh’s face the glazed sweetness and becalmed serenity that has become Claire’s evolved state of being. Whether we determine this to be a pathological escape route or not we do see at one point from Claire’s perspective Abigail as a functioning teenager.
Claire and Reggie’s home and the museum have been simply but artfully created by set designer Michael Anania and highlighted for the scenes in the museum by a huge panel upon which are projections and film showing the birth of the universe and other scientific phenomenon and data. Joe Saint was the designer for the expert let-there-be-light department.
It is the nature of people to be affected and persuaded as much by what is delusion and by what is real. What is most important, and at the heart of play, is whether we think that Claire should be free to alter the agenda and the mission of an institution strictly devoted and dedicated to substantiated facts. But what kind of victory is it when you can say that you have gained your faith, but lost your family and your best friend in the process?
DiPietro is hot at the moment, with his musical “Memphis” poised to win the Tony for Best New Musical. But he is also has a history with George Street, where his musical “The Toxic Avenger” had its debut last season. “Creating Claire” is clearly not nearly as toxic, even as it considers the potential contamination of science by religion.
“Creating Claire,” through Sunday, June 6, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $31.50 to $71.50. 732-246-7717.