Has the missing link ever been found? In 1912 a skull supposedly unearthed in Sussex, England seemed to prove that man had evolved from the ape, supporting Charles Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” published more than half a century earlier.
That’s the crux of the new, thought-provoking drama “Fake,” which opened at Steppenwolf on Sept. 22. Written and directed by ensemble member Eric Simonson, it begins like many a cozy English mystery, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, inviting four guests to his English country home. They are Jesuit priest and archeologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, British Museum director Arthur Woodward, amateur archeologist Charles Dawson and a young American journalist, Rebecca Eastman.
The gathering is set in 1914, after the skull, titled the Piltdown Man, has been authenticated by the British Museum and Dawson has become famous. Doyle suggests the skull, by then at least as famous as Yorick’s, is a fake, provoking a strong reaction among the group, and piquing the feisty reporter’s interest in exposing the hoax.
But Simonson has written much more than a period piece. He deftly shifts the action back and forth between 1914 and 1953, the year Piltdown man is officially discredited.
He wisely cast the same five actors for both time periods. Kate Arrington plays the American journalist in the 1914 scenes and Katarina, a Lithuanian archeology student in 1953; Coburn Goss is first Chardin and then a young American scientist from UCLA who provides the final proof of the fraud; and Francis Guinan plays Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and then Jonathan Cole, a burnt-out Oxford professor who has worked on Piltdown Man for decades and is engaged to the much-younger Katarina. Rounding out the ensemble are Alan Wilder, an original Steppenwolf member, cast in both eras as British Museum official, and Larry Yando, as the skull’s “discoverer” Charles Dawson and a photographer from the Daily Mail documenting the official end of the Piltdown caper.
The single cast gives depth and continuity to the drama. The British accents, however, are sometimes a bit hard to understand, especially Guinan’s thick Scottish brogue as he portrays Conan Doyle.
Simonson’s script is the marvel here, terse and to the point at all times, unafraid to delve into the mystery of what it means to be a human being. And he should get a medal for having the Chardin character explain his dense, complicated theories about life, evolution and faith with such clarity. His discourse on what the Jesuits called our God-given gift of curiosity is breathtaking.
Steppenwolf is gracefully exploring the question “what happens when we choose to believe?” Its season is off to a roaring start.
“Fake” runs through Nov. 8 at 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago. For information, visit www.steppenwolf.org.