When you take your seat for the production, which is directed in utilitarian fashion by Megan Behm, you find yourself contemplating an enormous university seal, positioned next to a desk with a football on it. These furnishings denote the campus of a Midwestern private college, where the avuncular philosophy professor “Doc” Johnson (Nick Torres) doubles as football coach. (He also moonlights as a flight instructor at a nearby airfield.) Even as the nonbelieving Doc sparks angst within the college’s predominantly Christian community, he repeatedly proves himself an inspiring teacher: Timid, narrow-minded freshmen transform into confident, civically engaged thinkers after just weeks in his Intro to Philosophy class.
Unfortunately, the college’s budget-obsessed, devout Christian president, Jim Thompson (Claude Stark), thinks the liberal arts are a waste of resources. A cheerleader for the college’s computer and business departments, not to mention the revenue-generating football program, Jim attempts to terminate the Intro to Philosophy course — and Doc’s teaching career — mid-semester. But first he has to reckon with opposition from students such as Sheila (Rebecca Phillips), a sheltered-evangelical-turned-budding-Socrates-enthusiast, and Bob (Victor Maldonado), a neurotic jock who is beginning to recover from a miserable childhood, thanks to Doc’s support.
Lest you overlook the story’s heavily outlined but lopsided clash of worldviews — tolerance vs. bigotry; courageous humanism vs. knee-jerk religiosity and conformism; belief in a liberal arts education vs. allegiance to a money-grubbing, diploma-pocketing utilitarianism— Goodman has added a frame tale that seems to involve a trial of Doc in the afterlife. Jan Forbes plays the (thankfully) briefly glimpsed Judge, and Cassandra Newman the judge’s clerk. (Edward Moser created the play’s dutifully ominous sound design.)
This exaggerated framework notwithstanding, Doc comes across as a plausible and appealing character, thanks to his odd mix of interests, his opinionated stubbornness, and his flair for quips (“Clearly Bronze Age,” he banters after Bob dismisses Sheila’s piety as a “Stone Age” mind-set). Looking slightly disheveled and paunchy, the poised Torres does a nice job of drawing out the professor’s rough-diamond charisma. The story’s supporting characters, on the other hand, have been written as types, rather than people, and the actors’ studied but slightly hesitant portrayals don’t do much to add depth.
The paucity of rounded characters, and the lack of nuance in the story’s key conflicts, undermine “Atheist’s Paradise” as a play of ideas. Goodman is interested in important and — given various university controversies and all the recent talk about student debt — timely questions: What is the purpose of higher education? What is the value of skepticism and doubt? How do people grow intellectually and morally? Unfortunately, by grafting these concerns onto an ultra-schematic story, while giving short shrift to the views of Doc’s opponents, “Atheist’s Paradise” fails both as theater and as invitation to debate.
Wren is a freelance writer.
by Bill Goodman. Directed by Megan Behm; lighting design, Brian S. Allard; set, Brooke A. Robbins; costumes, Alison Samantha Johnson. About 1 hour 45 minutes. Through Nov. 25, at the Melton Rehearsal Hall of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. Visit www.atheistsparadise.com or www.theedgeoftheuniverseplayers2.com/.