Andrew White, John Francis Babbo, and Caroline Heffernan
Andrew White, John Francis Babbo, and Caroline Heffernan Credit: Liz Lauren

The question of what separates good theater from great theater is a vexing one. A production can have everything going for it—strong acting, a great set, amazing costumes, wonderful direction—and still leave us feeling unmoved and empty. The new play at Lookingglass, Sara Gmitter’s In the Garden: A Darwinian Love Story, left me feeling that way.

The work has all the elements for a great evening. Certainly, it has an interesting subject: Charles and Emma Darwin’s fascinating marriage. She was a fervent Christian who believed heart and soul that the Bible was literally true. And he was, well, Charles Darwin, the paradigm-shifting scientist whose seminal work cast doubt on the biblical creation story and took man out of the center of the universe. Yet somehow, despite these differences, they stayed married, had ten children, and remained devoted to each other; how they made it work would seem an excellent premise for a play.

It would also be hard to imagine a better cast. Andrew White makes a great Darwin, at once brilliant and dithering, impassioned in his beliefs and a little shy. And Rebecca Spence blazes as Emma Darwin, ably conveying both Emma’s razor-sharp mind and her warmth. When Emma reacts to the death of their beloved eldest daughter, Anne, Spence plays the despair so adeptly you can feel it.

Cast in multiple roles, Cindy Gold and Austin Tichenor display remarkable range. Tichenor, best known to me as one of the frenetic quick-change artists in the Reduced Shakespeare Company, is a virtual chameleon here too, playing by turns Darwin’s father, brother, and his Jeeves-like butler as well as the vociferous antievolutionist Reverend Samuel Wilberforce. Gold does her own star turn, taking on a variety of female roles, then topping things off with a bit of virtuosic drag as she disappears into the part of firebrand proevolutionist Thomas Huxley.

Everyone performs in gorgeous Victorian costumes by Mara Blumenfeld, on a set (designed by Collette Pollard) that is to die for: a fine wood desk, a beautiful grand piano, a reclining sofa of the kind Freud made famous, and behind it all a high bookcase packed with books.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that there is little drama in this drama.

Instead, writer Sara Gmitter and director Jessica Thebus have fashioned a painstakingly detailed two-hour book report. The play unfolds with the stately but deathly slow pace of prestige period pieces. Yes, the look and feel of the era is lovingly re-created onstage; it still seems more like a diorama than live theater.

Scenes dealing with the long illness and death of Anne Darwin are an exception. For a brief time, the play comes alive. Then, sadly, it’s back to the book report.

The problem is that Gmitter and Thebus take an emotionally safe route. They stick to the facts, and the facts of the Darwin’s marriage are just not that interesting. Much of the tale is predictable from the get-go: we know the two will marry. We know he will turn the world on its head with The Origin of the Species. And half an hour into the play we know these two are so well matched (and divorce so rare in that era) that in all likelihood they’ll remain married. (Spoiler alert: they do.)

As the title suggests, the play focuses on the questions Darwin’s work raises about the clash between science and faith, fascinating issues to be sure—for an essay, but not for riveting theater, at least not in this case.

Gmitter and Thebus do try. They pack the evening with lots of biblical symbols. The play begins with a young girl haltingly reading the first few lines from the King James version of the Book of Genesis (“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth . . . “), followed by a brief scene in which a young Darwin observes the animals in his garden before being interrupted by a young girl (Emma) who enters and distracts him. Clearly he is supposed to be Adam and she Eve. But what is Eden? Their innocent childhood? The uncomplicated world before Darwin’s theories shook us out of our dogmatic slumber?

Another problem with the play is that the great philosophical question at its center—whether or not one can reasonably believe in both God and evolution—is not particularly compelling, except perhaps among the fundamentalist fringe. It may have been otherwise in Darwin’s time, but most believers now don’t insist on the biblical account’s literal truth (whatever that might consist in). Darwin himself changed that, along with Freud, and Kierkegaard, and a host of others.

Which is why, not far into this play, I found myself focusing hard on the well-crafted set, well-designed costumes, and the cast full of terrific actors giving virtuosic performances. Because at the center of it all is a cold, emotionally distant if well-crafted play with nothing new to say—and a little more than two hours to say it in.