The Heretic

Burning Coal Theatre
Through Sept. 29

Ever since his first production of Pentecost, David Edgar’s suspenseful meditation on art, terror and the politics of exile in 1990s Eastern Europe, it’s been clear that Burning Coal’s artistic director, Jerome Davis, relishes intellectually intimidating scripts about big ideas.

He followed that regional game changer in his company’s inaugural season with two other Edgar scripts in ensuing years, along with a host of similar works, including Einstein’s Dreams, Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, David Hare’s Map of the World and a radical deconstruction of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Thus we’ve come to look to Burning Coal for works that work us in return, in productions that actively challenge us to take on some of our society’sand planet’smost complex political, scientific or ethical problems. Such shows remind us that theater wasn’t a place where just the ancient Greeks could come as a people to deliberate their most pressing cultural dilemmas. With the proper commitment, it still can still fulfill that role.

I’m pleased to report that Burning Coal’s season opener marks a return to that high calling. By now, English playwright Richard Bean has conquered audiences and critics on both sides of the Atlantic with his farce One Man, Two Guvnors, but in The Heretic, he takes on a latter-day sacred cow: the politicizingand subsequent corruptionof science, as evidenced in the current disputes over global warming.

His protagonist is Diane Cassell, a scientist at a small British university who makes it clear that she’s not a denier of man-made global warming. Instead, she calls herself an agnostic, later adding, “I’m a skeptic because I have no choice: The science isn’t good enough.”

That uncompromising stance is attacked by a BBC reporter who asserts “You’re pretty much alone in this belief, aren’t you?” Her response: “It’s not a belief. I’m a scientist. I don’t ‘believe’ in anything.”

Bean has clearly patterned part of the plot here on the 2009 “Climategate” controversy, in which hackers obtained emails and climate data from a university server in England, and the following year a UN report misstated the predicted melting of the Himalayas by 2035.

As in Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, Bean has to lay out a goodly amount of science in The Heretic’s exposition, and does so gracefully enough. If I can’t validate the science, I recognize the characters and the dilemmas they face.

Julie Oliver’s no-nonsense read of Dr. Cassell was sure-footed and crisp on opening night; her first-act takedown of her too-pragmatic superior, Prof. Maloney (an able Holden Hansen), was simultaneously gentle and scathing. Chris Raddatz gave a tart, taciturn read to the role of her difficult student, Ben. And having respected Emilie Blum’s previous work at Burning Coal, I want to see the result when she finishes assembling her character, Dr. Cassell’s emotionally troubled daughter, Phoebe, who remained a work in progress on opening night.

Still, Bean’s play points out what’s at stake when science is mistaken for religion and more than facts dictate public policy. If you want a good intellectual workout, see The Heretic.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Absurd unbelief.”