The De Chardin Project
The life and works of Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit philosopher, geologist and paleontologist, are fascinating but very complex to study. A veteran of the First World War, in which he served as a stretcher bearer, de Chardin drew attention from the Catholic Church for provocative theological writings that cast doubt on the existence of original sin, getting him banished by the church to China, where he led research into the Peking Man.
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He gives us an intriguing framework by setting the entire play in the last few minutes before de Chardin’s death, making everything a giant flashback through which the always fascinating Maev Beaty acts as a guide: spiritual, romantic, political and philosophical.
Cyrus Lane gives us a passionately committed de Chardin, searching for answers everywhere and never settling for easy solutions. It’s a bit strange that he seems to be perennially 35, even though the character is often twice that age, but he still makes a strong impression.
Alan Dilworth’s production is striking and stylish throughout, placing all the action inside a kind of sports arena of the soul, designed to perfection by Lorenzo Savoini with brilliantly understated lighting.
But though the frame is impressive throughout, the picture inside it frequently moves in and out of focus.
Seybold is wonderful in depicting the crucial scene in which de Chardin’s spiritual mentor is forced to tell him that the church is disowning him. And he has another fine sequence in which a Japanese inquisitor threatens de Chardin with torture and death if he does not turn over the skull of the Peking Man.
But there are other scenes — with a deserter on the battlefield, or in de Chardin’s childhood home — that are sadly generic. Beaty is a kind of theatrical litmus paper here: if the writing is honest, she triumphs, but she can’t bring something to the stage that isn’t on the page already.
However, the play’s final confrontation, between de Chardin and a woman who is deeply disturbed on many fronts, sends us slipping into a kind of spiritual soap opera — where we should soar, we stumble.
Still, even with all its faults, The De Chardin Project is the kind of theatrically adventurous, intellectually challenging piece we need more of in the theatre.
And Dilworth’s cast and production could not be bettered. If we must have secular saints and spiritual guides, let them all be as persuasive as Cyrus Lane and Maev Beaty are here.