Those who believe in science and those whose lives are ruled by faith are, by definition, worlds apart in their concept of what is commonly known as the creation. For one camp to sway the other, either by logic or by religious conversion, is virtually impossible.

This is not to say they don't try. And a biology teacher transplanted from New York to Plainview, Kan.— near what Hornbeck in "Inherit the Wind" labels "the buckle on the Bible belt" — has her work cut out for her.

Playwright Catherine Trieschmann has conceived of such a confrontation in her intriguing drama "How the World Began," now enjoying its world premiere at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. Her biology instructor inadvertently drops the phrase "that other gobbledygook" in reference to creationism — and all hell breaks loose.

As sensitively staged by Daniella Topol, "How the World Began" casts each of its three characters in a reasonably sympathetic light — the pregnant, unwed teacher (Sarah Rafferty), the fervently religious student whom she's offended (Jarett Sleeper) and the young man's de facto guardian (Time Winters). When all three are on stage together, the drama becomes incendiary.

Rafferty in particular brings an identifiable conciliatory factor to her character, however misguided she considers the other two. As a fish out of water in the heartland, she endeavors to curry favor with the locals without sacrificing her basic beliefs. But appeasement only goes so far, and occasionally she'll blurt out an expletive that leaves no doubt where her true feelings lie.

Sleeper's high school student, the fulcrum for the clash of wills, is somewhat of a problem. As a young man who's lost his hated stepfather in a twister, he's naturally conflicted, and his teacher unwittingly ignites his suppressed passions. There's no "give" in his robotic approach to the situation.

More understandable, if no less dangerous, is Winters' folksy ex-postmaster who shifts easily from amicability to hostility. This character has his young ward's interests to guard, yet appears more reasonable, at least on the surface. It's a beautifully layered performance.

Trieschmann and director Topol have endeavored to present a balanced account of this age-old battle of beliefs, giving each character myriad ammunition for an intellectual assault. Given the location, the victor in this conflict seems preordained, but at what cost to all concerned?

The play's final scene requires a bit of work. The ending is abrupt and inconclusive, drawing conflict from a previously unexplored source. To eschew the short sequence altogether might be the answer.

Sara Ryung Clement's scenic schoolroom design — with its panoramic exterior of the prairie in the background (you almost can smell the odor of manure wafting through the windows) — is beautifully rendered, as are Clement's costumes. Paul Whitaker's lighting effects lend equal credence.

"How the World Began" is an important, thought-provoking play with some arresting performances. It should have an audience far beyond South Coast Repertory.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "How the World Began"

Where: South Coast Repertory, Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:45 p.m., and 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays until Oct. 16

Cost: $20-$68

Call: (714) 708-5555 or go to http://www.scr.org.