Bruce Cohen Group, Carol Rosegg, Associated Press
In this theater image released by Bruce Cohen Group, Heidi Schreck, left, and Justin Kruger are shown in a scene from “How the World Began,” a Women’s Project Theater production performing off-Broadway at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater in New York.

NEW YORK — A thoughtless remark by a pregnant science teacher transplanted from New York infuriates a doggedly religious teenage student in a shattered rural community, and their arguments about faith and evolution escalate in tune with their passionately held but incompatible viewpoints.

This is the premise of Catherine Trieschmann's intelligent new play, "How the World Began," presented off-Broadway by Women's Project Theater at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater.

The increasingly tense, 90-minute drama is set in the fictional town of Plainview, Kan., flattened a few months earlier by a massive tornado that killed 17 residents. Many others have since moved away from the ruined town, and everyone remaining is grieving and on edge.

Sixteen-year-old Micah (capably portrayed by newcomer Justin Kruger), is an earnest, orphaned "young Earth creationist" who carries a Bible in his backpack. He persists in nagging at his liberal biology teacher Susan (Heidi Schreck) to apologize for using the word "gobbledygook" to describe non-scientific ideas about the origin of life on Earth.

Schreck makes the glib, atheistic Susan appealing through sheer personality and charm. Susan's stubborn refusal to understand why the townspeople would cling to their religion for support following such a disaster leads to the escalation of unease and friction.

Kruger is very credible as Micah, unrelenting and glum, who may be naive but is smart enough to often use Susan's own words against her. Adam LeFevre gives a genial, pleasant air to Micah's would-be guardian, Gene Dinkel, the kindly former postmaster, who believes in his own brand of fundamentalism and tries to broker peace between Susan and Micah.

But Susan digs in her heels, sticking to her scientific principles and refusing to apologize, saying Micah and the other students have blown her remark out of proportion.

Under Daniella Topol's subtle direction, the characters interact naturally and believably, as emotions and tension heat up in the claustrophobic school trailer. Each believes so thoroughly in their views that they find it difficult to communicate with somebody who doesn't share their opinions. Trieschmann's dialogue and Topol's pacing reflect natural-sounding, flustered incoherence common to people with defensive attitudes.

Although the play ends with a whimper instead of a big bang, with nobody willing to compromise, Trieschmann provides a thought-provoking look at the complexity of people who find it impossible to empathize with viewpoints not their own when it comes to the topic of religion.