Trumpery is the story of the origin of the “Origins of the Species,” Charles Darwin’s revolutionary theory of natural selection. The prelude to publication was a time of crisis and adventure for Darwin (Ian LeValley), who struggled with the religious implications of his discovery (“If I finish the book, I’m a killer,” he says. “I murder God.”). Regrettably, Olney Theatre Center’s production, despite a talented cast, mostly murders suspense and drama.
The play begins twenty years after Galapagos, with Darwin still dawdling over his unpublished manuscript. The evidence he has reviewed leads him to a theory that all species develop through a process of natural selection based solely upon favorable evolutionary characteristics, a view that eliminates the guiding hand of God. The consequences of his discovery are personal to Darwin, whose wife Emma (Christine Hamel) is a fervent believer. Emma fears that Darwin has lost his faith and is encouraging their gravely ill daughter Annie (a fine Hannah Lane Farrell) to question religion as well.
Darwin faces a second dilemma, more mundane but not less consequential: he faces the possible loss of public credit to an unknown explorer named Alfred Russel Wallace (Jeffrey Thaiss) who apparently has come up with the same theory and has sent Darwin his essay for review.
Playwright Peter Parnell explores these themes inventively, and with an eye toward enlivening what was essentially an academic debate. He takes arguments originally made in correspondence and turns them into personal, face-to-face confrontations between Darwin and the conservative – and decidedly unpleasant – paleontologist, Sir Richard Owen (James Slaughter). Darwin is aided by his scientific allies Joseph Hooker (Shelley Bolman) and Thomas Huxley (Nick DePinto), who encourage Darwin to stake his claim quickly with a joint submission on the “Darwin-Wallace Theory” to a scientific society while rushing to complete the book that will ensure his fame. Ironically Darwin proves that fame and historical survival go to the fittest.
Notwithstanding Parnell’s efforts, however, subject matter as heavy as Trumpery’s requires zestier staging than Olney gives it. Regrettably, director Jim Petosa often allows the pace of the performance to drag. On some occasions when characters have long speeches, the lighting dims and an obligatory spotlight is focused on the actor. A more brisk and spirited approach might have helped the story overcome the cerebral nature of much of the drama.
Another problem is the overwrought portrayal of Darwin both in the script and on the stage. Darwin is so guilty over the impact of his views and the potential of taking undeserved credit that he becomes literally nauseous. Multiple times. Yet the production exaggerates his distress even more. For example, when his wife asks him to pray with her, Darwin takes several steps backward in utter horror. This strained portrayal makes it hard for the audience to connect with the character.
There are entertaining moments. Nick DePinto gives a charming and energetic performance as the combative Huxley. A séance enlivens the second act when Emma invites a noted spiritualist to their home named Williams (Slaughter again; he handles several roles, all skillfully). Interestingly, the good-hearted and naïve Wallace proves an unexpected supporter of spiritual beliefs despite sharing Darwin’s scientific views.
Trumpery gives its audience a hint at the how exciting the ideas and events underlying the publication of the theory of natural selection were. Unfortunately, to actually experience that excitement, you will have to go to somewhere other than this inconsistent and meandering production.
by Peter Parnell
directed by Jim Petosa
produced by Olney Theatre Company
reviewed by Steven McKnight
Trumpery runs thru July 4, 2010.
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.