Stage Review: On the Nature of Dust

In Stephanie Timm’s new play, evolution is reversed, and so is our hold on certainty.

This is the third time at bat for the fledgling New Century Theatre Company, and it's clear they won't flinch when it comes to facing down Big Issues. Having successfully tackled corporate dehumanization (in 2008's debut, The Adding Machine) and the blinding emotional flares that erupt when love affairs reach supernova (last year's Orange Flower Water), NCTC now fixes the hot topic of evolution in its sights with a new one-act that lampoons those who would proselytize both for and against it.Playwright Stephanie Timm attempts to thread the needle of satire and sincerity by setting nearly every character on a trajectory that forces them to embrace a worldview they considered unthinkable at the outset. It's an audacious move, and often slyly funny, although I would question the decision to market On the Nature of Dust as a comedy. In fact, her text could almost be considered post-comedy, since it has no more in common with your average Neil Simon joke parade than Modern Family has with Leave It to Beaver. The form is familiar enough, but the precise nature of Timm's agenda remains elusive as her characters, like hand-crafted chess pieces, begin to mutate with each move toward resolution.None of this is clear as the lights come up, when it appears On the Nature of Dust will be another ready-made sitcom for the stage. A pair of young teens, Bernie and Clara (Benjamin Harris and Brenda Joyner), fumble awkwardly toward their newfound sexual attraction. Clara and Momma Shirley (Amy Thone) fling themselves headlong into arguments over loyalty, love, and lust—and, ultimately, which of the pair is more mature, since Mom can't keep a relationship or seem to pay a bill on time.If you've ever been to a skating rink and heard the announcer call for everyone to suddenly skate backwards, you'll recognize the whiplash that occurs when this sweet 16-year-old suddenly begins to experience a change of life, and we're not talking menstruation here. Courtside witnesses to Clara's transformation include her biology teacher (Betsy Schwartz) and youth minister (Michael Patten), whose repeated encounters with one another—in line at the grocery store, at the liquor store, and elsewhere—become more heated as they grapple with whether Clara's predicament is a genetic anomaly or evidence of a divine hand.The one lodestar throughout is an unremarkable high schooler working at the local pet store who aspires to nothing more than being Clara's boyfriend. As Harris plays him, Bernie is the complete cipher, although he gets instinctively what the others must learn: True love is unconditional, and respects no boundaries of form or logic.Since this is a play still in development (and if you have ideas for the cast or playwright, you're encouraged after the show to share them), it's easy to see that, like the characters, Timm is herself pushing for something more original than what's already onstage. Dozens of sci-fi stories take the same conceit Timm employs, so while it may be clever, it's not unique. The sharpest insight here is that even the most unshakably certain of us have flashes of doubt and despair. Do we open our minds and our hearts to the mystery of existence, or do we take these opportunities to seal tight any cracks that might appear in our carefully constructed universe?On the Nature of Dust asks these questions and more, but does so with an air of whimsy. I actually caught the play twice in 48 hours, and one of the reasons is that I was sure Timm had tipped her hand as a playwright to identify with evolutionists. On second viewing, I concluded that she hasn't, really. By the end, all are sufficiently baffled and humbled by their brush with the unknowable.NCTC has found another way to distinguish itself. True to form, the direction (by Kathleen Collins) is sharp and the tech work remains seamless, from the American Beauty–style sound cues that mark scene changes to the AstroTurf-as-indoor/outdoor-carpet theme. And now the theater has a voice to call its own.NCTC's resident playwright Timm has gotten the support of a charismatic group of performers. Deprived of Clara's body early on, Joyner builds her character from teenager into a disembodied empathic consciousness. Schwartz and Patten make amusing opponents in the evolution debate, while Harris and Thone are similarly complementary as bookends. Thone's Shirley is jaded, abused, self-absorbed, and in desperate need of a hand worth holding. As Bernie, Harris is not the hunk of Shirley's dreams, but the youth who helps her realize that life doesn't need to be understood to be

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