Plainview, Kan., exists in Catherine Trieschmann's imagination.
But the playwright is no stranger to the actual fertile flatlands of the Great Plains, the threat of tornadoes that hangs above the American heartland's sky and its charged social issues.
All of this inspired her to pen "How the World Began," a one-act drama set in that fictional town that will make its global debut Friday night at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.
For six years, Trieschmann and her husband have lived in the real town of Hays, Kan., halfway between Kansas City and Denver.
"I was inspired by getting at the root as to why people hold onto some of those ideas," the playwright said in a phone interview.
She was referring to a long-running national debate about whether creationist ideas stemming from the Book of Genesis belong in American school textbooks alongside the teaching of evolutionary theory. The controversy around that discussion forms the plot line's crux.
"How the World Began" comprises four scenes played by a cast of three, whom Trieschmann seems to treat equally as protagonists. The plot unfolds inside a starkly-lit FEMA trailer that houses a high school classroom in Plainview, where a twister has struck, killing 17 in its path.
Susan Pierce, a high school biology teacher played by Sarah Rafferty, is a newcomer to Plainview, as well as a pregnant single woman and fresh transplant from New York City. From that hotbed of liberalism she brings with her a rigid set of pro-evolutionary notions, which clashes with the locals' own religious beliefs.
When Susan makes a remark in her classroom that indirectly dismisses creationist theories as "gobbledy gook," she triggers a conflict with one of her teen-aged students, Micah Staab, played by Jarrett Sleeper.
The drama escalates in her dealings with the character of Gene Dinkel, a local man played by Time Winters. Dinkel comes to the classroom bearing a homemade pie, clearly designed to disarm the teacher and sweeten her into apologizing to Micah and his classmates for uttering the offending remark.
Trieschmann, a believer, said she treats each of the three characters with an equal measure of criticism and compassion.
"I don't believe that [the theory of] intelligent design has a place in the science classroom," Trieschmann said. "I am a Christian who believes in the separation of church and state."
A real-life debate pitting creationists against proponents of evolutionary theory was raging in Hays in 2005, when Trieschmann and her spouse, Carl Miller, arrived there from Washington, D.C., for his new job as a philosophy professor at Ft. Hays State University, which is mentioned in the play.
Trieschmann said the idea came to her because Miller had taken part in panel discussions on the so-called theory of intelligent design. An offshoot of the creationist movement, I.D. theory claims a scientific basis to the argument that humans did not necessarily evolve randomly as descendants of apes — as posited by Darwin's theory of natural selection — but through God's design.
Such a debate in one form or another has spilled over into courtroom battles since the landmark "Scopes Monkey Trial" of the 1920s. A school teacher, John Scopes, went on trial in Tennessee and was convicted then for violating a state act that barred the teaching of "any theory that denies the divine creation of man and teaches instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals," according to an excerpt of the Butler Act cited by the National Center for Science Education.
At least one court case arising from the ongoing debate has unfolded in Orange County. Twenty years ago, John E. Peloza, a biology teacher in the San Juan Capistrano Unified School District, sued district officials for making him teach evolutionary theory as scientific fact while preventing him from airing his religious beliefs in his classroom, according to the NCSE. Peloza lost.
The debate around intelligent design picked up steam in recent years, when a conservative group in Dover, Pa., went to court to try and force the school district there to incorporate I.D. into the curriculum. At around the time when Trieschmann and Miller landed in Hays, the Kansas state school board was debating a similar question.
"How the World Began," which has been in previews on the Julianne Argyros stage since Sunday, opens at 7:45 p.m. Friday.
The play, which is making its world debut at SCR in association with the Women's Project Theater in New York, is the second production in SCR's 2011-12 season. The play was selected for production here at this spring's Pacific Playwrights Festival at SCR, where a reading of the script was given.
The season marks the first under the theater company's new artistic director, Marc Masterson.
He is a former artistic director of the City Theatre in Pittsburgh, where the director of "How the World Began," Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Daniella Topol, interned under him.
"What the play is really about is how we treat other's beliefs — in what way do we respect or disrespect them?" Topol said in an interview before directing a rehearsal of the production.
If You Go
What: "How the World Began," written by Catherine Trieschmann and directed by Daniella Topol
When: Opens Friday after previews during week; Shows at 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 16; official post-show discussions will take place after the performances on Oct.4-5.
Tickets: Call (714) 708-5555 or go to scr.org
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa