‘In the Garden’ a life story for the ages
The bitter controversy first generated by the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s landmark work, “On the Origin of Species,” has not abated. And watching “In the Garden (A Darwinian Love Story),” Sara Gmitter’s deeply intelligent, beautifully written play — now receiving an exquisitely realized world premiere by Lookingglass Theatre — you may well begin to think: There are many places in this country where attempts to produce this play, despite all its nuanced arguments about the theory of evolutionary biology on the one hand, and the belief in creationism on the other, might still meet with fierce resistance. In fact, it should be welcomed.
As it happens, Darwin had to confront much of the same resistance he faced in public in his private life. For while he married a woman he adored, he could not give himself over to her form of faith in God, and the enduring embrace and sustenance of a spiritual force she prized so greatly. So “In the Garden” (whose title captures both the Biblical and biological aspects of the play), becomes much more than a fervent ideological debate. It also is a searing portrait of a passionate yet not entirely aligned marriage. And the magic of the play comes into full force in its second act, when neither science nor belief seem entirely fail-safe, and all that ultimately prevails is the deep, unfathomable mystery of life, and all its complexities.
This meticulously layered, hugely engaging piece of storytelling — alternately fervent and charming, comic and didactic — seamlessly captures three stages of life. It begins with the boyish Charles (John Francis Babbo), already an obsessive observer of nature, playing with his cousin, Emma Wedgwood (Caroline Heffernan). Both young actors are accomplished and beguiling. Then, in one of those magical transitions unique to theater, the two grow up in a flash.
Just back from the life-altering five-year voyage to South America and the South Seas that was key to his research, the bearded Charles Darwin we know from archival photographs (Andrew White, in the finest performance of his career, capturing the intense focus and inner turmoil of the man at every turn), is reunited with the fetching, self-possessed Emma (Rebecca Spence, whose beauty is paired with fierce attention).
Before proposing, Darwin enumerates the pros and cons of marriage — a list that should be required reading for every couple thinking of tying the knot. The two clearly love each other, despite their fundamental disagreement, and proceed to marry and have six children. It is the death of their daughter, Annie, just 10 years old, that causes a subtle sea change in both Darwin and his wife.
Under the pristine direction of Jessica Thebus — and with multiple roles winningly played by Cindy Gold and Austin Tichenor — “In the Garden” draws the audience into an Eden-like world thanks to Collette Pollard’s magnificent set, JR Lederle’s heavenly lighting and Mara Blumenfeld’s alluring Victorian costumes. Amazingly, this is Gmitter’s first major play (she spent 15 years as a stage manager and teaching artist for Lookingglass). It is a superb piece of work, and I eagerly await the next step in her evolution.