Also see Susan's review of Mrs. Warren's Profession
Playwright Peter Parnell has bitten off more than he can chew with Trumpery, the biographical drama about Charles Darwin (Ian LeValley) now receiving its area premiere at the Olney Theatre Center in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. Parnell could have concentrated on one of the two dramatic arcs that face the noted 19th-century biologisteither Darwin's crisis of faith or his rush to beat another scientist into print with his theorybut instead he chose to present both stories at once, crowding too much detail into a single play.
To be sure, Darwin is a fascinating figure, and LeValley finds the passion of a man seeking answers beyond the simplistic ones he finds in religion, but he and the other actors have a difficult time with the playwright's wall of words. The actor also has to spend much of his time on stage dealing with the character's physical infirmities, including more than one incident of vomiting.
Parnell begins the story in 1858 with Darwin receiving a manuscript from Alfred Russel Wallace (Jeffries Thaiss), a naturalist who has independently stumbled on the same theory of natural selection that Darwin has pursued for 20 years. With the help of scientist friends such as flamboyant Thomas Huxley (Nick DePinto) and stodgy Joseph Hooker (Shelley Bolman), Darwin decides to publish his book while sitting on Wallace's work.
At the same time, however, Darwin is also trying to deal with the failing health of his daughter (Hannah Lane Farrell) and the fact that his wife (Christine Hamel) finds her solace in the sort of rational, contained God who has complete control over the universe. Darwin is not an unbeliever, but he needs to envision a deity for whom creation is ongoing and eternal and punishment is fleetingin other words, the opposite of prevailing theological opinion. (The title is an old-fashioned word that refers to either foolishness or trickery.)
Director Jim Petosa doesn't have much opportunity for nuance in this play, which lays out the arguments in blunt and obvious terms. Hamel is not much of a presence, while DePinto grabs hold of every scene in which he appears. Although Wallace is set up as a counterweight to Darwin, Thaiss concentrates on the low-key idealism of his character, speaking slowly and distinctly even in his major monologue.
Scenic designers Jeremy W. Foil and James Kronzer and lighting designer Daniel MacLean Wagner bring the disorientation of Darwin's ideas to visual life with an irregular floor, flying papers, a tower of books glowing from within, and (for some reason) a pile of whitewashed ladder-back chairs.
Olney Theatre Center