Chris Bennion

It's too bad that this new play by Stephanie Timm, which hinges on the tension between biology (represented by a high-school science teacher) and Christianity (a preacher), gets the theory of evolution wrong. Granted, On the Nature of Dust is a science-fiction fable: The play's main character, a sweet high-school girl named Clara, transforms into a chimpanzee, a blue-footed booby, a newt, a sunfish, etc. But when the biology teacher describes this central metaphor as "devolving, going backward," as if natural selection travels in a straight line from mitochondria to monkeys to us (just to be clear—it doesn't), it lets the intellectual air out of the tires. What could have been a rich metaphor for adolescent transformation is reduced to a gimmick.

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Dust is a study in misunderstanding. Clara (Brenda Joyner) is a studious girl growing distant from her mother (Amy Thone), a scattered woman who cares more about her next date than paying the electricity bill. (Her favorite admonition, "I am NOT cleaning this up," seems subconsciously directed at her own messy life.) Clara's biology teacher (Betsy Schwartz) trades barbs with her pastor (Michael Patten) as the two keep running into each other while shopping. Clara's goofy but good-hearted boyfriend (Ben Harris) is the only one of the bunch who seems more interested in Clara than himself. An early scene between the two of them on a school bus is the play's warmest and most engaging—partly because Timm's writing is best in the small, intimate scenes and partly because of the sweet, shy chemistry between Harris and Joyner.

But the play's energy drains as human-Clara disappears, letting the thin metaphor take her place. Her transformation triggers learning and growing among the grown-ups in predictable, pat ways. The biologist and the preacher question their respective faiths (would it surprise you to learn that they swap lecterns?), and the mother comes to terms with her daughter's changes. "Be whoever or whatever you want to be," she concludes. But you probably saw that coming. recommended

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