Talk About Evolving: Charles Darwin in a Malibu Beach House at Main Street Theater

Darwin in Malibu (L-R): Rutherford Cravens, Mai Le and Joel Sandel.
Darwin in Malibu (L-R): Rutherford Cravens, Mai Le and Joel Sandel. Photo by Ricornel Productions
For almost five years, a young Charles Darwin traveled from his home in England on a sea voyage that took him around the coastline of South America and the nearby Galapagos Islands, onto the southern tip of South Africa and finally to Australia and its adjacent Islands.

Nowhere in all the records of his travels does it show a trip to Malibu, least of all a Malibu beach house. But that is exactly where playwright Crispin Whittell has put Darwin, albeit 120 years after the famed evolutionist's death.

In Darwin in Malibu, Darwin (David Harlan) is joined by 19th Century contemporaries: the Bishop of Oxford Samuel Wilberforce (Rutherford Cravens) and scientist Thomas Huxley (Joel Sandel) who in their day held great debates about Darwin's theories of evolution (now generally accepted as fact).  Added to the mix is Sara (Mai Le), a young female companion to Darwin, who appears periodically as they continue their discussions.

Main Street Theater Artistic Director Rebecca Greene Udden who is directing, says she chose this play — a regional premiere — for the opener of their 2021-22 season because " it’s just so much fun and just the notion of these three and Wilberforce is not a buffoon. He was a churchman, he was a Bishop. He was just a true believer and these kind of big minds keeping up the discussion 100 years after their deaths. It's really fun."

"It's an ongoing philosophical discussion. It starts out as a discussion between Wilberforce and Huxley about creationism versus Darwinism and Wilberforce is still trying to make the creationist argument and Huxley is having none of it.

"But it gets into other areas. It talks about how did life get started and what do we know about life after death. It kind of morphs not just into the beginning of life but what happens after we die. Of course, Wilberforce has got it all in for heaven and Huxley and Darwin are not so sure about that."

"Darwin comes across as fairly broad minded. He recognizes what he doesn’t know as opposed to Huxley and Wilberforce."

Huxley and Wilberforce are wearing the type of clothing they would have worn later in their lifetimes but Darwin, complete with lengthy beard, is in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and sandals.

Rather than settling anything to the nth degree, the play conjures up questions, Udden says. "There are some moments when people seem to get clarity but it doesn’t come down on a particular answer one way or the other."

Main Street's COVID protocols call for mask wearing and audience members to present proof of vaccinations or a negative COVID-19 test. To date, the theater has only received one request for a refund from a person unwilling to follow those stipulations designed to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Udden says.

Fortunately, too, she says, Darwin in Malibu has a small cast and there are no love scenes.

The pay has three acts and runs about 90 minutes. When we spoke Udden said they still hadn't decided whether to run it straight through or take one break between the second and third act.

Making it to the end of the play — which admittedly has a lot of talking involved — apparently has its rewards. "There’s one exciting moment at the end when the bishop decides to show his truth and starts taking off his clothes and wants everybody else to do the same,"  Udden says.

"You don't have to have read The Origin of the Species," or have memorized the Genesis chapter of the Bible to enjoy this play, Udden says. "It's very accessible."

Performances are scheduled for October 2-24 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays at Main Street Theater - Rice Village, 2540 Times Boulevard.  Patrons will be required to wear masks and show their vaccination card or negative COVID test (within 48 hours) prior to entering the theater. For more information call 713-524-6706or visit $35-$59.
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