August 23, 2006
Life After Death:
Darwin in Malibu Premiers at Bay Street
Where do we go after we die? If you're lucky, you end up in a beach house in Malibu. Playwright Crispin Whittell poses this profound question in Darwin in Malibu, receiving its U.S. premier at the Bay Street Theatre, but also adds a healthy dose of humor to the discussion. As the main character Darwin points out, "Who needs evolution when you have plastic surgery?"
In the California afterlife Darwin, played by Hal Linden, meets up with Thomas Huxley (grandfather to the novelist Aldous Huxley) a physician who publicly supported his theories and Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford who vehemently attacked Darwin's theory of evolution played by Neal Huff and Richard Easton, respectively. As author Whittell notes, little did he envisage when he first wrote the piece that the debate between Darwinism and Creationism would again be taking center stage in the form of "intelligent deign" and that fundamentalism would have gained such a modern and violent foothold.
In terms of which of the characters has evolved most over the century since their death, we see that Darwin has adopted Birkenstocks, a Hawaiian shirt, health shakes, and even smoking pot whereas both Huxley and Wilberforce appear in period costume, designed by Amela Baksic, which become central to a later strip debate scene. The wild card is the wistful contemporary young Sarah, played by Anna Chlumsky (the grown-up child star of My Girl) who muses about her lost lover and the contents of his water-soaked diary.
Books play a major part in the narrative whether it is the Bible, Darwin's Origin of Species, Sarah's lover's dairy or a trashy paperback novel called Malibu. The characters seek answers in each of these tomes at various points and even turn to newspaper horoscopes for enlightenment. Yet in response to Sarah's conflicting desire to know and not know what was inside her lover's head, Darwin warns, "Knowledge comes at a price." He reveals it is our consciousness as humans of our own death that is the original curse of the Tree Of Knowledge and what sets us apart from other species.
"We're all here but where is that?" is the question posed by the Bishop who seems quite upset that he hasn't reached heaven but is stuck in what he views as purgatory with these two non-believers with his goal being to elevate their collective souls. In one of the funniest yet most poignant interchanges, Darwin negotiates with Wilberforce for pigeon shooting in heaven.
Whittell strives to present an "unapologetic play of ideas" while imbuing his subjects with a common goal of needing to "believe," his fictional characters showing more desire to compromise their steadfast opinions, no doubt, than their 1800's counterparts. As their lives and loves are unraveled, each of the character's motivation for what they hope to find in the afterlife is revealed on an emotional rather than intellectual level. "I lost God in the heart before I lost him in the head," confesses Darwin.
Director Daniel Gerroll plays Darwin's laid back demeanor against the more highly agitated and formal Huxley and Wilberforce and sprinkles the dialogue with Sarah's modern lexicon, in a particularly right on speech about "the other woman," to give contemporary context. The first act tends to meander a bit but the second act brings more focus and depth to the narrative. Ultimately, Darwin in Malibu poses more questions than it answers, and some of the most interesting discussions become those among audience members at the conclusion of the play.
What these characters reminds us is the importance of listening to the other side of a debate and being fully present in whatever reality you may find yourself, accepting at times not knowing as knowing.