Washington Stage Guild opened its season with a thoughtful and thought-provoking production of Crispin Whittell’s Darwin in Malibu. In many ways, in spite of its California Dreamer-style title, Darwin is less a play than a philosophical disputation carried on among three pivotal 19th century intellectuals whose restless spirits suddenly find themselves—bodies intact—transported to a present-day California beach house.
Charles Darwin (Leo Erickson), dressed like a casual beach bum and relaxing in perfect comfort on a beach chair with a banana smoothie and a trashy novel, has his reverie interrupted by his old champion, Thomas Huxley (Robert Leembruggen). In short order, they’re joined by one of their prime historical antagonists, Samuel Wilberforce (Jeff Baker), the Anglican Bishop of Oxford.
The three commence their historical argument anew. At which point we suddenly realize that the heart of their debate is—drum roll, please—creationism vs. evolution. As the French are fond of saying, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Fortunately, the tone and the argument of the play generally remain lighthearted, reminding us that good, old-fashioned debate can remain amusing, informative, challenging, and intellectual without resorting to the cheap shots, smears, and ad hominem attacks that seem to characterize most debating today.
Even those who are not deeply into scientific theory, philosophy, and theology will find Whittell’s treatment of the issues more than accessible. And keeping an open mind on the subject at hand—whatever one’s own personal beliefs—can enable the audience to grasp both the strengths and the flaws of each side of the argument, which, in the context of the play, can take some amusing turns.
But the evolution debate is not the only topic our vacationing ghosts encounter. More seriously, given that they’re already dead, each ponders the meaning of life and death as well. Wilberforce is particularly perturbed, since this kind of earthly exile puts him into what is at least a metaphorical purgatory. He has not yet glimpsed God and wonders what the problem might be.
Which brings us to the odd character out in Whittell’s play, a casual, modern, California beach girl named Sarah (Alejandra Escalante). Initially, it seems like she’s been carelessly written into this drama merely to supply Darwin and his pals with blender-smoothies. She’s not really up to her guests’ philosophical disputations and generally doesn’t see the point of all the intellectual puffery.
As the title character, Leo Erickson’s Darwin was the very model of a university professor. Deliberative, generally slow and thoughtful of speech, he’s also every bit the scientist, answering each observation with a mild but pointed challenge to the speaker to back it up with something tangible. The other male characters orbit around him. That’s understandable since it’s Darwin’s own evolutionary theory that Huxley defended and Wilberforce attacked even though the latter never actually met Darwin until this play.
As Wilberforce, Jeff Baker caught perfectly the antic approach of this historical cleric, famed for his witty if erratic approach to debate. Baker’s Wilberforce hews closely to received theology. But he has no problem at all pondering the many things that scripture leaves unanswered. You’d think the cleric in a play like this would be a dull guy, but Baker’s acting really puts the spin on this play, adding in a surprising element of unpredictability.
Enter Robert Leembruggen’s Huxley. Choleric, excitable, pugnacious, he’s really a bit much and frequently allows his emotions to intrude upon his rational side. He amuses Wilberforce while often exasperating Darwin whose theories he champions. And yet, near the conclusion of the play, we find him perhaps to be the most vulnerable of them all, prone to hide his really anguish and guilt behind his combative personality.
Whittell’s Sarah seems to serve as both muse and reminder for her three elder guests of their own losses of spouses and daughters. Yet oddly, this seemingly casual, carefree young woman—portrayed in a sneaky-powerful way by Alejandra Escalante—becomes the emotional focus of the play near its close as she relates to Darwin the story of her love’s portrayal and her own tragic loss. This poignant moment adds the missing dash of pure emotion to a play that generally prefers to operate on the intellectual plane.
One can see that Darwin, Huxley, and Wilberforce have suffered greatly from their own personal losses. But, with the momentary exception of Huxley, they intellectualize. Escalante’s Sarah doesn’t know how to do that. Her emotions and sorrow are profound, pure and true, closing the loop on the mind-body dilemma in this play, making this drama more than it initially appears to be.
If you’re looking for action, excitement, belly laughs, and heart-stopping plot twists, Darwin in Malibu is not for you. But if you’re fans of the Stage Guild’s main squeeze, George Bernard Shaw—whose often static talkfest-dramas remain popular for their still fresh and disputatious intellectual content—you’ll find yourself scoring points for Whittell’s debaters before you know you’re doing it.
Darwin in Malibu
By Crispin Whittell
Direction by Steven Carpenter
Produced by Washington Stage Guild
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
DARWIN IN MALIBU
- Trey Graham . Washington City Paper