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Burning Coal Theatre Company has opened its 2013-14 season with the American premiere of British author Richard Bean’s The Heretic, a comedy about an academic scientist whose notions about global warming land her in hot water with her university. Richard Bean is a prolific playwright who has been producing plays in London at a rate of one or more a year since 1999.
The Heretic takes place at a small southern English university where Dr. Diane Cassell (Julie Oliver) is a part of the scientific faculty. Dr. Cassell’s research consists solely of taking measurements of the sea to mark its rise due to Global Warming; unfortunately, her research indicates that there is no rise in sea levels, due to warming or any other reason. The results of her findings are about to be published, but her immediate supervisor, Professor Kevin Maloney (Holden Hansen), asks her to hold off on publishing until the beginning of the new year. Meanwhile, she is attempting to sway the thinking of one of her new students, Ben Shotter (Chris Raddatz), by having him continually challenge the notion that there even is any Global Warming, which is an anathema to what he believes to be true.
Ben asks Dr. Cassell if he can spend Christmas at her place; he lives alone and he is smitten by her twenty-one year old daughter, Phoebe (Emilie Blum). Dr Cassell refuses Christmas, but agrees to Boxing Day, the next day. Ben will accompany them on their annual walk to a nearby “lost village.” But by the time Christmas arrives, Dr. Cassell has gone on a television program and forwarded her findings that there is no rise in sea levels, and has published her findings in a radical magazine that flies in the face of the scientific community who all believe to the contrary. These acts get her suspended from her position at the university, and during the intermission we change scenes from Dr. Cassell’s office at the school to her large farm kitchen nearby.
Diane’s life has been complicated by death threats she has been receiving for her “dangerous” beliefs. She has enlisted the aid of one of the university’s police officers, Geoff Tordoff (Mark de la Salle), but little is done to secure her safety. Also complicating her life is the woman from Human Resources, Ms. Tickell (Emelia Cowans), who aids Professor Maloney in his suspension of the good doctor.
The fact that this is a comedy is proven by the hijinx undergone by Ben and Phoebe, and the back-and-forth that takes place between Kevin and Diane over her uncommon beliefs. The banter is priceless, and has the audience in stitches almost continuously. The reason is that Kevin is implacable, and Diane is volatile. In Act II, when Kevin appears unannounced at Diane’s door, there is a flurry of activity as laptops come out, Ben and Diane attempt to bring Kevin over to their thinking, and there is a knock-down drag-out over Diane’s suspension. To further complicate the issue, the budding romance between Ben and Phoebe is beginning to bloom.
Julie Oliver as Diane Cassell leads a stellar cast in presenting The Heretic, a hilarious send-up of current societal mores and a delicious mano a mano between Diane and Kevin, who actually did sleep together a long time ago, at the beginning of their professional careers. The sexual tension is evident, along with a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to individual opinion on the warming of the planet. As the spearhead of the opposition, Oliver is hilarious; she is in turns adamant, cajoling, persuasive, loving of her daughter, and deadly serious about her findings. Oliver has been acting in comedy in the Triangle for many years, and this comedic foil is one of her absolute best characters to date. Oliver fills out Dr. Cassell’s character like a hand fills out a glove, and the result is a character who is exceedingly wise in comedic design and deadly accurate in her aim at the inaccuracies of Global Warming indicated by her research.
Superb in his implacable foil to Dr. Cassell’s volatility is Holden Hansen as Kevin. He is able to ward off Diane’s barbs without being drawn into her explosive retorts, he fends off both Diane and Ben as they attack, and finds the humility to let her know the real reason he has come to her house.
The banter, effluvium, and skill that are evident in The Heretic are brought to bear full-bore on this happy audience who was more than ready to laugh. Director Jerome Davis levels this hilarity by highlighting the friction between these two academics as they agree to disagree. A laugh-out-loud script and a truly tremendous cast make this show the comedic hit of the summer. Gather up as many friends as you can find and get down to see The Heretic. You’ll be laughing all the way home.
The Heretic continues through Sunday, September 29. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.