Actress Rebecca Phillips firmly believes that anyone who has ever doubted themselves will be drawn to Atheist’s Paradise, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company from November 3 through 25. “That covers just about everybody, right?” she asked rhetorically. Phillips plays a devout student named Sheila in the world premiere of this exploratory play, touching upon the weighty subjects of philosophy, religion, the state of higher education and even mortality.
Atheist’s Paradise focuses on a philosophy professor and football coach of a small Christian college named “Doc” Johnson (played by Nick Torres) and his interactions with his students. When Doc feels pressured by a new college president, Jim, to abandon controversial teaching and turn his attention to improving the football team, he decides to stick to his guns. Doc continues to rely heavily on critical thinking as he counsels Sheila and a self-destructive freshman named Bob.
“Although the subject matter (the elimination of the classics from a college education) is controversial, I don’t think that Doc is,” Torres said about his role. “He’s a good man who cares about his students and believes he can make them better human beings if only he can teach them to think. It’s the circumstance around that that brings the complexity.”
When asked what he hopes audiences will take away from this production, Torres said he doesn’t want the play to make decisions for anyone.
“That would be pretty much the opposite of what my character would want,” he said. “I do want it to make the audience think and question their own beliefs about our educational system.” Atheist’s Paradise is the first play from The Edge of the Universe Players 2, a new theatre company devoted to highlighting unique approaches to serious ideas. As someone who loves to challenge her audience, director Megan Behm was eager to join forces with playwright Bill Goodman. The Arlington resident said she wants the audience to think about what they’re seeing instead of passively observing the production.
“I think Atheist’s Paradise has a lot of ‘serious ideas’ – but wraps it up in a plot line and characters that the audience can become invested in,” Behm said. “I think this play really reminds people that making scary choices can be hard, especially in difficult times, but it’s always worth it to be true to yourself and your beliefs. So I hope that audiences can see a little bit of themselves in these characters and sympathize with their stories.”
Phillips sees a great deal of herself in Sheila and said it has been a challenge to separate her character from who she is as an individual. “Her story mirrors mine in a lot of ways, particularly the timing of her crisis of faith,” Phillips said. “I grew up in a Christian household and my faith was an important part of my life. But the beginning of college was a turning point for me when I realized that not only was I unable to justify a lot of what I’d believed, my need for answers I couldn’t find was mentally exhausting.”
The actress said one of the major differences between her experience and Sheila’s is that her struggle was almost exclusively internal, whereas Sheila has Doc to force her out of her comfort zone. “I would argue that a smaller, subtler controversy in the play is whether Sheila’s voice is worth hearing as an 18-year-old woman,” she said. “The play as a whole might be about the value of the humanities in higher education or where philosophical and religious thought intersect, but Sheila’s story is just as much about finding her voice and becoming proud of it.”
Atheist’s Paradise runs November 3 through 25 at Melton Rehearsal Hall at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company: 641 D St. NW, DC; 202-355-6330; www.atheistsparadise.com.