Where: Lookingglass Theatre Company, Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave.
When: through June 15
By ANNE SPISELMAN
The very best thing about the world premiere of Sara Gmitter’s “In the Garden: A Darwinian Love Story” at Lookingglass Theatre Company is Andrew White’s performance as Charles Darwin. The ensemble’s artistic director isn’t in many plays these days, and he brings great depth and complexity to the role of the insatiably curious scientist who changed the way we see the world. He makes palpable the frustration the self-doubting Darwin felt in his quest for the truth — and at the Victorian establishment’s scorn — and breathes life into his steadfast love for Emma Wedgewood, the devoutly Christian cousin he met as a youth and married.
As you might guess from the title, their relationship is at the heart of the play, and Rebecca Spence does a nice job of balancing Emma’s religious convictions, lively intelligence, and love for her husband. The way the two take care not to hurt each other’s feelings as they disagree about the big questions — God’s existence, whether he can co-exist with evolution, what kinds of proof count, what to teach the children — is enough to make you wish that every marriage was like theirs.
But despite the insight this sensitive interaction offers into the characters, these discussions become one of the play’s drawbacks. They go on too long and are rather repetitive, especially since they follow the same pattern over and over. Emma asks Charles to consider the possibility that God has an active part in our lives. He points out the lack of proof and aspects of nature that argue against her beliefs. And they both agree to be more understanding.
The only serious alteration in the pattern comes in the second act when the couple grapples with the serious illness of their oldest child, Annie (Caroline Heffernan), and Emma’s belief in God’s benevolence is sorely tested. Not coincidentally, this is the only part of the evening that’s truly dramatic: There’s a genuine crisis; the characters have to deal with it, and we don’t know what the outcome will be. Even if you’re familiar with Darwin’s life story, this tension exists.
Otherwise, “In the Garden” falls into one of the traps of biographical or quasi-biographical plays. It’s very episodic without there being very much at stake — intellectual inquiries notwithstanding. We know from the opening scene between the young Charlie (John Francis Babbo) and Emma (Heffernan) that they are meant for each other despite their ideological differences. After Darwin returns from his five-year voyage of discovery on the H.M.S. Beagle, their courtship proceeds pretty much without a hitch. They marry and start a family, which grows in short order. He continues his research (everything about the natural world interests him), works on his books, and debates publishing his findings, while all the while being a loving father who actively participates in the upbringing and education of his children.
When his book is published, it excites a furor, and we see a snippet of a debate that degenerates into a free for all, causing him great embarrassment. Then it’s on to the next incident.
Gmitter, who has spent many years as Lookingglass’ stage manager, has written a script that contains some humor, and a couple of the scenes with the children — especially Darwin’s experiment testing a baby’s responses — are amusing, but the basic structure is predictable and a bit boring, or would be were it not for White’s thoroughly engaging Darwin. Besides Spence and the two young actors, the cast is limited to Cindy Gold and Austin Tichenor, who are excellent in a variety of roles but arguably are tasked with one or two too many.
Collette Pollard’s lush scenic design creates a stunning first impression. In front of a verdant forest is a Victorian sitting room totally entwined with vines and flowers, all on a platform supported by myriad sections of small logs among which young Charlie finds the insects that fascinate him and promptly takes notes into the little red notebooks he uses throughout his life. The setting not-so-subtly reinforces the intersection between nature and artifice, romance and reality and suggests both the Garden of Eden and a world in which nothing is cut and dried. JR Lederle’s lighting, Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes and Andre Pluess’s music enhance the tone.
But, in truth, “In the Garden” needs a lot of pruning and tending before it’s a compelling play. I’m not even sure that focusing on Darwin’s love life, which comes across as basically harmonious, is the best idea. His conflicts with the scientific and religious establishment produced more fireworks, and I think I’d rather watch him overcome those odds.