A Jesuit priest, paleontologist, and philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955) died in obscurity but became a rockstar to religious intellectuals in the decades following his death. For those seeking to reconcile the Bible with The Origin of Species, his writings—in particular, his posthumous tome The Phenomenon of Man—were huge. Here was a scientist and man of God who argued eloquently that evolution was really part of a divine master plan. Today his middle way must still hold appeal for those who are put off both by the willful ignorance of creationists and by the hard-headed atheism of Richard Dawkins & Co. It certainly appeals to playwright Adam Seybold, whose The De Chardin Project at Theatre Passe Muraille is a reverential, if anemic, biographical fantasy about the man.
Seybold’s play takes place in the five minutes between the 73-year-old priest’s fatal heart attack and his death. In that interval, his life doesn’t flash before his eyes, but rather unfolds in tidy chronological episodes. Guiding Teilhard (Cyrus Lane) through his past is a mysterious woman (Maev Beaty) with a Socratic penchant for answering questions with more questions. She also appears as various people in his life, from his mother, to his would-be lover—New York artist Lucile Swan—to colleagues such as the Toronto-born paleoanthropologist Davidson Black.
We see Teilhard as a small boy in his native France, as a young scientist in Egypt, and as a stretcher-bearer in the First World War. We hear some of his early unorthodox theories on the concept of Original Sin, which provoke the Roman Catholic Church to censor his writings and exile him to China. There, he joins Black’s (literally) groundbreaking team in helping to identify the fossilized remains of the Homo erectus known as the Peking Man. And he finds his other self-proclaimed “missing link” in the widowed Swan, who is attracted to Teilhard despite his Roman collar and tries to get him to break his vow of celibacy.
The De Chardin Project made its Toronto debut in 2013, as part of TPM’s Backspace season, and went on to win a Dora Award for best play in the indie-theatre division. That version starred Seybold and Kate Fenton under the direction of Ginette Mohr. For this new production in the Mainspace, the play has acquired some high-powered talent in Lane, Beaty, and director Alan Dilworth—all three of whom were involved in another religion-themed show, the ambitious Passion Play, two summers ago. They give Seybold’s work the kind of artistically committed treatment we’d expect from them, even if they fail to get us excited about its subject.
Part of the problem is that Teilhard largely appears as a passive figure in his own life. His scientific passion and deep religious beliefs are under-dramatized, while any doubts or personality flaws are barely touched on. And while Lane is a strong actor, here he seems to be going for blandness—his youthful priest is good-looking, even-tempered, and speaks in an English-Canadian accent. There isn’t a hint of the Gallic in his voice or even his mannerisms.
It’s up to Beaty’s Guide to drive the story, and the actress obliges with a chameleonic performance, switching accents, age, and gender in the blink of a lighting change. In one scene, she’s a curious English schoolboy; in another, a shell-shocked American soldier; in another, an imperious Japanese official. There are times when you feel like what you’re really watching is The Maev Beaty Project. While she can impersonate men with ease (her Ronald Reagan in Passion Play was priceless), she is particularly effective as the witty, forthright Swan, who despite her bold advances has to settle for playing editor to Teilhard as he dictates The Phenomenon of Man.
Dilworth (Beaty’s husband) puts her and Lane in an arresting production that almost distracts from the play’s weaknesses. The director, who helmed Soulpepper’s enjoyable revival of Twelve Angry Men last summer, once again uses a traverse-stage configuration, with the audience seated on either side. Production designer Lorenzo Savoini has envisioned Teilhard’s between-life-and-death limbo as a dark, crimson-tinged cube, with squares of light on the stage that suggest a chessboard. The stage floor is studded with trapdoors that do double-duty as props storage and excavation pits, while also proving handy for surprise entrances. And if Savoini’s preference for visual gloom ever tempts you to nod off, Thomas Ryder Payne’s startling sound design will jolt you awake.
Fans of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin will appreciate this admiring bio, in which the only real opposition to his theories comes from the conservative Catholic Church. (And the Church has since decided that he’s an alright guy.) But The De Chardin Project would be a lot more engaging to the rest of us if it offered some real intellectual battles, or at least did a better job of making us feel the ecstasy and frustration of a visionary unappreciated in his own time.