versus creationism debate gets an updated look, in Peter Parnell's 2007 play Trumpery now on stage at the Olney
Theatre Center (to 7/4). Commemorating the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary
of the publication of the Origin of Species, the play primarily turns on the matter of attribution or priority in
science. The theory of evolution represented an instance of near simultaneous discovery by the well-known naturalist and a
relatively unknown, though occasional correspondent, Alfred Wallace. His paper on findings involving speciation arrived
via cover letter to Darwin (who had worked on this himself for 15+ years) in 1858. Who would grab the laurels?
The subsequent actions of Darwin and his circle in the glacial "rush to publication" would be summarized by a later
combatant: He got there "firstest with the mostest."
You might want to bone
up on Darwin's life before you take your seat (not much is given in the program); for Parnell's busy play touches
on many aspects his life as well as the history of science. A cast of seven actors playing 12 parts covers a lot of
ground. The slow-going and melodramatic first act, deals with a continuing family tragedy - the terminal illness of his beloved
daughter Annie (Hannah Lane Farrell) - followed by the receipt of Wallace's letter, the build-up to publication, and set-up
of conflicts. Darwin (played with Jobean fortitude by Ian LeValley) is a man with a lot on his plate: a discontented
wife Emma (Christine Hamel), self-interested colleagues, including Joseph Dalton Hooker (given a delightfully smug turn by
Shelley Bolman), Thomas Huxley, later known as Darwin's Bulldog (Nick DePinto), and Richard Owen (James Slaughter); and
a variety of medical and psychic ailments that leave him retching over the edge of the stage, if he's not writhing on
it. Son George (James Chatham) serves as a foil between the domestic and external tensions of the play.
Act II unfolds 3 years later and picks up for the better with the introduction Alfred Wallace (played with
childlike wonderment by Jeffries Thaiss) and the unfolding and clarification of the storyline. The Welsh Wallace adds
the touch of class conflict, to the dismay of the self-righteous ruling group of scientists, spouting everything from spiritualism
to revocation of enclosures - this free spirit is a socialist, horrors. The marvel is that both he and Darwin arrived
at the same point by very different journeys and temperaments.
The battle of ideas serves as a metaphor both for the scientific theory and the personal lives of Darwin
and Wallace (each suffers a profound loss). If only the strong survive, is it a function of luck, physical constitution,
or divine intervention? Each looks for answers and finds them in his own way.
Jim Petosa has opted for the visual in dramatization, creating a number of arresting tableaus with the aid of scenic designers
Jeremy Foil and James Kronzer and the superb lighting of Daniel McLean Wagner and Brian Engel. Mr. Petosa's production
lingers over them a bit too long for my taste, but then a periodic pause seems necessary for the sake of understanding.
This tree-of-life script is in serious need of pruning. Also unwieldy is the massive, open set - almost thrust to edge
of the audience - which causes some loss of clarity, particularly when the actors are upstage. The suspended chairs
and papers along with scattered books, while emphasizing the upturned world of Darwinian revolution feels too obvious, though
the strikingly geometrical configuration of the stationary set is harmonious with the new world view, emerging from the old.
Also appealing were the sound design of Elisheba Ittoop - at times a fusion of the primitive and post-modern and at others,
given just the right underscoring of the scenes- and the fashionable costumes of Nicole V. Moody which blended nicely with
the brown-orange-red color palette.
At its heart the play fails to convey to today's audience the emotional stakes of those times. Back then
a loss of faith, a loved one, and a reputation really was everything. Now we're a disposable culture, ready to put
things behind us, pick-up something new, and move on. And a play of ideas, when it's done successfully, needs a
smaller cast and more focus (cf: Michael Frayn's Copenhagen). Despite the limitations, much credit must be given
to the playwright for bringing attention to Ground Zero in 19th century history of ideas and mainstream Victorian
morality, often touching in its notions of fidelity and tradition. Mr. Parnell has channeled a mighty engine of change
with the sentiments of the times and given us all something to think about it, for better or worse.
visual design, fine acting by the principals and provocative theme more than offset blemishes in the script, pacing, and set.
With a little prep, you should have a good night (or day) at the theater. Recommended with reservation, 2½ hands (out
of 5). Run time is about 2 hours and 15 minutes with an intermission (Ours ran longer, with a loss of power during the
First Act - a rain delay!)
© John F. Glass June 23, 2010 - All rights reserved