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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

In the Garden

Or: Body and Soul

Is there any better way to spend the easter (or passover) season than hunting out those stories of impossible odds, dubious miracles, and belief in the unbelievable? When the author David Mitchell poetically painted in pidgin Charles Darwin as “The God a’Smart”, he was not just being ironical: the man went through enough revelations and persecutions as any true prophet. While Sara Gmitter’s In the Garden appears at first blush more of an odd couple romance spiced with genteel philosophical debate, there is enough illustration of these trials to give serious yeast to a humorous depiction of the most unconventional of marriages.

Returning after five years on the HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin (Andrew White) returns to find his cousin and childhood friend Emma Wedgewood (Rebecca Spence) grown into a charming, intelligent and very religious young woman. In spite of his own issues with the Christian Faith and her issues with his issues, they agree to marry and make a life together. But seven children, two ideas of how to bring them up, and a pesky theory on the “transmutation of species” can stain even the tightest of bonds.

Gmitter’s first work, after more than 15 years of working as a stage manager for Lookingglass, is an Smart work. It would have to be to knit together 12 years of courtship and marriage and nearly 300 years of political debate into a sensible biography and a smooth dialog. It’s sense of humor steams from (or more likely is the origin of) comedy shows like The Big Bang Theory or The IT Crowd: the awkwardness that bubbles between goodhearted but socially inept nerds and those who love them. In his portrayal of Darwin, White plays this to the hilt through his observant inattention and habit of falling off of furniture. As he begins to face bigger, more terrifying questions than the ancestry of finches, he stops being the man unable to march to the beat but the man abandoned by the orchestra and trying to fill the silence. Spence for her part excels in Emma’s Austin-esque wit and poeticism but her real triumph is in the picture of Emma’s faith which between her gentleness and Gmitter’s careful writing is neither naive or impossibly good. It is a depiction of belief as it was designed to be, rooted in the world, but reaching up to higher hopes.

Ultimately thought the play bears its best fruit for the director Jessica Thebus. The new wind blowing over Chicago, Thebus gravitates towards shows where she can Shepard differing philosophies about. She chooses not focus on the intellectual argument; the debate rarely clashes but mostly flows through point and counterpoint of reason. Like it’s musical equivalent, you have to work hard to follow the threads, otherwise it’s just a beautiful wash. Where Thebus really shows her skills is in the emotional “discoveries” when animal nature, base and beautiful breeches through all that thought.

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