Evolutionary Darwinism and spirituality face off in “A Misunderstanding.”
The play, which opened Jan. 4 and runs through Feb. 3 at The Complex, is centered around the fictional Dr. Bertram Cates, a former biology professor. Cates, who was dismissed from the University of California because of his teachings about evolution through a spiritual perspective, sues UC for wrongful dismissal. Playwright Matt Chait, a former UCLA and UCLA Extension professor of acting, dubbed the institution “UC” rather than a specific campus. “A Misunderstanding” follows characters grappling with their philosophical disagreements, while emphasizing that people can still love each other despite fundamental differences, said Dennis Renard, one of the actors and a UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television alumnus.
“I think people relate to it in how you deal with people you love, how you use forgiveness. Maybe when someone you love messes up, what do you do then?” Renard said. “When is the time to forgive them, and when is it unacceptable?”
The characters believe their viewpoints are correct throughout the play, Renard said, and multiple perspectives are established as the trial unravels. Renard plays Howard Blair, a graduate biology student at UC. During the trial, he testifies on behalf of Cates, who was his academic mentor and advisor. Both he and Cates believe there is a place for spirituality in science, Renard said. They feel that people don’t consider evolutionary theories outside of Darwinism, and hesitate to accept creationism.
One of the major disagreements in the play emerges during Cates’ battle for reinstatement, Renard said. Cates debates the UC chair of biology and fierce believer in Darwinism, Joshua Brownstein, played by Bruce Katzman. Their misunderstanding is essentially a scientific, philosophical dialogue during the debate, Renard said. Both biologists are debating their own approaches to evolution, while Cates tries to fight for his job back. He said the disagreement between the characters may challenge the audience’s own scientific perceptions, leading them to question what they actually believe about evolution. During one scene, Cates and Brownstein debate whether Darwin’s theory applies to the human eye – Brownstein uses natural selection in his argument, while Cates believes Darwin’s theory doesn’t fully explain the complexity and mechanism of the eye, Renard said.
A second major conflict is Blair’s disagreement with his fiancee, Melinda, who is also Brownstein’s daughter. When Blair chooses to testify on behalf of Cates, his mentor and advisor, and finally tells Melinda his true beliefs about evolution, he is also going against her father, causing a tremendous rift between the couple, Katzman said. Despite Blair and Melinda’s conflict, the couple is a representation that people can still love each other regardless of controversy. When Melinda confronts her fiancee about his testimony, and Blair explains his evolutionary beliefs and ideas to her. While she is extremely upset with him, Melinda still spends time trying to understand and the beliefs he is noticeably enthusiastic about.
“The play I think is trying to say … loving transcends those issues of politics and philosophy and religion, and I think it tries to make that point of view,” Katzman said.
Brownstein, who is initially rigid in his Darwinist beliefs, also starts to bend slightly and consider other possibilities to evolution, Katzman said. Throughout the trial, Katzman said Brownstein also starts to get his point across to Cates, and by the end, he even accepts some of the scientific possibilities that Cates suggests. Chait, who also plays Cates, said his character and Brownstein rekindle a friendship over the course of the trial, regardless of their continuous argument.
On a broader level, “A Misunderstanding” considers significant tensions in the world, Chait said. The most prominent cause of strife, he said, is between those who view the world in a religious and spiritual way and those who view the world in a material way. The divide leads to conflict, similarly to political discourse in the United States between right- and left-wing groups, Chait said. The play doesn’t follow two completely opposite belief systems, he said, but delves deeper to find a middle ground.
“Everyone has that one thing that they’re afraid that if they tell people about it, they’re gonna be misunderstood,” Renard said. “The play helps you realize that you’ll never get what you truly want, which is that understanding, unless you’re honest about what you’re thinking and feeling.”