In Olney Theatre Center's 'Trumpery,' the big ideas survive, even soar

NATURAL SELECTION: Ian LeValley, center, plays Darwin in "Trumpery."
NATURAL SELECTION: Ian LeValley, center, plays Darwin in "Trumpery." (Stan Barouh)
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 18, 2010

A large, mysterious slab hovers above the stage at Olney Theatre Center, a little like the monolith in "2001: A Space Odyssey," and the stage itself rests on a foundation of overturned chairs. An orb in the background glows and seems to have a turgid, swirling atmosphere, and a tall bookcase off to the side rises like a tower, with loose papers suspended around it in midair.

This grand cosmic set by Jeremy W. Foil and James Kronzer suggests a world blowing apart, which is more or less the theme of Peter Parnell's "Trumpery." This 2007 drama probes the conscience of Charles Darwin as he wrangles with his theory of natural selection -- or dithers with it, rather, until he learns he has a rival in Alfred Russel Wallace, a scientist also on the scent of this radical new idea.

If you think you sniff an underhanded plot about the survival of the fittest (we know, after all, that Darwin wins history's duel for credit), you're partly right. But Parnell is also interested in professional ethics, and even in the fate of the soul. Those concerns, admirable as they are, lead to introspective speeches, mountainous climbs that aren't always as gripping as the bold scenic vista cooked up by director Jim Petosa and his team.

For long stretches, "Trumpery" comes across as a hard play to act with any degree of nuance or reserve, what with the fate of God in the balance and all that. As Darwin, Ian LeValley plumbs the depths of anguish; the character's not merely racked about his career, but his wife is a devout Christian and his daughter is on death's door, so there is plenty to question in the Grand Scheme of Things. LeValley is an appealing actor -- he has a powerful body, moves with a dancer's grace and generally cuts a fine tormented figure -- but the stentorian approach to these end-of-the-world matters is sometimes hard to sustain.

This Darwin has a surprising foil, though, in Wallace, played with boyish wonder by Jeffries Thaiss. Wallace has a broad spiritualist streak that would seem at odds with the ruthless empiricism of the theory he shares with Darwin, and this makes him oddly noncompetitive, not much of a Darwinian survivalist. The juxtaposition of personalities is fascinating.

The blasted land's end of this sci-fi set establishes an aggressively nonrealistic approach to Parnell's script, which contemplates a range of positions on science and faith. At heart, the play is a parlor debate, with characters batting sophisticated notions back and forth. But Petosa sets those conversations against a vast eternal void, and for better and for worse that tactic pushes the actors beyond conversation and toward ecstatic heights. It's not a perfect solution to the play's windiness, but it's gutsy, and the implications of the vivid theatrics stay with you well after the show is done.

Pressley is a freelance writer.


by Peter Parnell. Directed by Jim Petosa. Costumes, Nicole V. Moody; lights, Daniel MacLean Wagner; sound design, Elisheba Ittoop. With Shelley Bolman, James Chatham, Nick DePinto, Hannah Lane Farrell, Ari Goldbloom-Helzner, Christine Hamel, James Slaughter. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through July 4 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Call 301-924-3400 or visit

© 2010 The Washington Post Company