British playwright Richard Bean’s 2011 comedy “The Heretic” takes on the targets of climate change debate, financial politics in academia and parent-child relationships. But Burning Coal Theatre Company’s fine casting and smart direction can’t mask the failings of the second act, which doesn’t deliver on the first act’s brilliant promise.
That first half’s tightly knit series of meetings and confrontations involve Diane, a university researcher working on sea levels. Her recent findings go against her department’s support of global warming theory. Her boss and former lover, Kevin, asks her to delay publishing her findings until after an international company visits to discuss funding warming research. Diane publishes anyway, causing Kevin to initiate proceedings for her suspension.
Meanwhile, Diane continues mentoring new students, including Ben, a committed environmentalist. He becomes intrigued by Diane’s tutoring methods that emphasize skepticism and objectivity. Diane’s daughter Phoebe, fighting anorexia and her mother’s seeming anti-environmentalist stance, falls for Ben and tries to keep him from Diane’s influence.
Bean juggles these relationships and concerns in a sharp, funny, thought-provoking whirl, leaving the audience charged with expectancy during intermission.
Unfortunately, in the second act, Bean throws in sitcom-style romance, suspense thriller and medical drama, diffusing focus on the first act’s key elements.
Burning Coal’s production goes all out to make the play work. Julie Oliver, known for vivid character parts, takes the lead with stage-filling verve, astutely conveying Diane’s confident smugness and contrarian humor. Chris Raddatz’s Ben is immensely likable, and his combative but respectful sparring with Diane are among the play’s best moments.
Emilie Blum invests Phoebe with manic intensity, often unexpectedly funny in her plain speaking, but ultimately too over-the-top. Holden Hansen gives Kevin an amusing weariness and sly charm, making his rounds with Diane also quite engaging. Mark de la Salle and Emelia Cowan play other university personnel, neither part fleshed out by Bean beyond the generic.
Director Jerome Davis gets dazzling pace and timing from his cast; the actors bravely battle the second act’s jumble of styles. The British accents take some adjusting to, and there’s more profanity than needed. There’s also distracting focus on sound effects for doors opening and being knocked upon.
But the production succeeds despite the script’s failings, a nod to Burning Coal’s professional approach.