Chicago Theater Review: IN THE GARDEN: A DARWINIAN LOVE STORY (Lookingglass)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 27, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


With its intentionally contradictory title, In the Garden: A Darwinian Love Story is not about the Garden of Eden; it is an earnest but unengrossing world premiere at Lookingglass Theatre Company, a study in amorous opposites that attract. Lookingglass artistic associate Sara Gmitter delivers a warmly written but ponderously circular chronicle of the much-tested marriage of the great Charles Darwin (Andrew White), co-discoverer of evolution, and the very religious Emma Wedgewood (Rebecca Spence), a lovely lady with a fine fortune who only wants her large family to one day be reunited in heaven. Charles, however, doubts that destination.

Andrew White and Rebecca Spence in Lookingglass's production of IN THE GARDEN, A DARWINIAN LOVE STORY.That unleashes a repetitious conflict straight out of Inherit the Wind that Gmitter artfully conceals behind affecting highlights from both his scientific and her domestic lives. The playwright’s short but strong scenes contrast the explorer’s curiosity about the origin of species and the ladder of life (or descent of man) with Emma’s hymn-singing, prayer-pushing devotions (exemplified by the play’s opening creation myth from Genesis). We glimpse every stage of the helpmates’ growing division over their place on the planet.  Only the death of their daughter Annie brings them a kind of accommodation as Darwin acknowledges a “creator,” if only to keep his options open.

A wonderful backdrop, Collette Pollard’s gorgeous, inventive set combines respectability and naturalism: The sumptuous Victorian study, drawing room, and bedroom are richly interwoven with trees and flowers, flanked by a huge bookcase depicting Darwin’s beloved collections of skulls, bats and–somewhere surely–beetles. Mara Blumenfeld’s period-perfect (and gender-bending) costumes feel right at home, as does the delightful piano score that sweetens the scenes.

Andrew White, Caroline Heffernan, and John Francis Babbo in Lookingglass's production of IN THE GARDEN, A DARWINIAN LOVE STORY.On Darwin’s side is his atheist brother Erasmus (Austin Tichenor, among many deft roles), who enjoys puncturing Victorian pomposity, and the great champion Thomas Henry Huxley (Cindy Gold, equally dexterous) whose brilliant debate with Bishop Wilberforce helped to carry the day for natural selection. Besides her own pious faith in a benevolent universe that takes a curious and personal interest in her salvation, Emma’s Christian opposition is represented by predictable letters accusing her gentle husband of gross blasphemy and a scandalous preference for apes over angels.

Andrew White, John Francis Babbo, and Caroline Heffernan in Lookingglass's production of IN THE GARDEN, A DARWINIAN LOVE STORY.Emma, it seems, harbors similar reservations (one reason that Darwin’s pragmatic dad counseled him to keep the modification of mammals a secret from his wife). Pouncing on Darwin’s “misplaced transparency” and his flagrant characterization of the “theory of creation,” Emma sees danger in ideas that could disturb their children’s ignorance—I mean, innocence.  When little Annie dies, she wonders—aloud—if their daughter’s death is just one more cold-blooded illustration of the survival of the fittest. Rather than permanently split the spouses, as might happen in many households, this terrible loss exposes the common ground of shared sacrifice and mutual love that holds them like the law of gravity.

Unhampered by British accents, Jessica Thebus’ stalwart staging—performed, interestingly, in a building as old as the theory–seeks its own accommodation with these polar partners.  Subject to erections and to vomiting, as much as attacks of insight over finches’ beaks and wasps’ cruelty, White’s far from robust but Rebecca Spence and Andrew White in Lookingglass's production of IN THE GARDEN, A DARWINIAN LOVE STORY.meticulously cerebral Darwin is a creature as complex as, well, creation: There are no “missing links” in this variegated characterization. Spence’s Emma is sprightly, mercurial, and touching in her doubt as much as her certainty.

Happily, the play defies its own origins. It could easily be an old dog chasing an ancient tail. But, ultimately, its depiction of the Darwins’ domestic diplomacy is far more engaging, relevant, and original than its return to an ideological dispute long ago resolved by fossils, genes, plate tectonics, DNA, and common sense.

photos by Liz Lauren

In the Garden: A Darwinian Love Story
Lookingglass Theatre Company
Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave.
scheduled to end on June 15, 2014
EXTENDED to June 29, 2014
for tickets, call (312) 337-0665 or visit

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