Lookingglass Theatre Company. By Sara Gmitter. Directed by Jessica Thebus. With Andrew White, Rebecca Spence, Austin Tichenor, Cindy Gold, Caroline Heffernan, John Francis Babbo. Running time: 2hrs 20mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
Lookingglass artistic associate Sara Gmitter’s new play, receiving a handsome world premiere staging by director Jessica Thebus, approaches Charles Darwin (Andrew White) and his studies from what one might term an interestingly humanistic angle: his relationship with his wife, Emma (Rebecca Spence). Gmitter’s peg is the intersection between Emma’s devout Christianity and Charles’s scientific doubt, centered on the reception in some circles of On the Origin of Species as a work of anti-creationist blasphemy.
It’s a hook with strong potential for grounding a figure whose very name has become a lightning rod for debates about the roles of religious faith versus secular science, particularly in the realm of public education. In Gmitter’s fictionalized portrait, the push and pull between Charles’s obsessive work and Emma’s ingrained religiosity is a constant source of both tension and strength in their marriage that finds its ultimate test in the illness of their eldest child.
But at this juncture, too much of Gmitter’s overly talky script consists of debate in the literal sense. Fastidious chronicler Charles lays out the pros and cons of marriage in the abstract for his father (Austin Tichenor). Charles and Emma engage in a drawing-room dust-up with Charles’s atheist brother (Tichenor again) and another secular-minded friend (Cindy Gold); after Origin is published, the Darwins listen in on a public debate between an Oxford scholar and a church bishop, fretting backstage over the parameters of the argument.
Spence’s inviting actorly vitality and the lushness of Collette Pollard’s flora-flecked scenic design do a lot of heavy lifting, and Gmitter gets in some nicely turned phrasings (“Divine providence is not an answer, it is an excuse not to look for one”). Yet while Darwin’s theories remain heated topics of discussion, In the Garden is a dramatic rehashing that needs more dramatizing.