There’s a reason why Inherit the Wind has become a classic. The best-known work from the prolific duo of Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, it’s been done countless times since its 1955 opening, with Broadway revivals, London runs, community theaters and three, count ‘em, three television versions. The play, of course, is based on the case known as the Scopes monkey trial in Tennessee in 1925. In that trial, a teacher was accused of teaching evolution, which was contrary to a newly passed state law.
The play has come to be what most people believe is the story of the trial. It’s not an accurate portrayal. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting story by a couple of playwrights who sometimes used theater for political statements. (Their The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail looked at civil disobedience, a tactic in heavy use in 1969, the year the play opened, both by the civil rights and the anti-Vietnam war movements.) Two heavyweight attorneys, both from out of state, are brought in to do battle over the charge, and a columnist from a newspaper in Baltimore is set to document the prize fight.
Allan Knoll is Matthew Harrison Brady, the character based on William Jennings Bryan. Knoll’s Brady often operates slightly tongue in cheek, as though he can scarcely control his amusement at the foolishness of anyone believing in Darwin’s theories. He and his opposite number, Henry Drummond, played by John Contini and based on Clarence Darrow, were once great friends. Contini’s Darrow seems not to have much of a sense of humor at all about this very serious question of whether it’s possible to legislate teaching about ideas. At least he doesn’t until the trial begins and he starts questioning witnesses, when his wit catches them and beguiles the audience. Knoll blusters with the best of them, and when he and Contini are bellowing over each other in argument before the bench, we may not be able to grasp every word, but it’s hard and real and angry. Contini shows Thinking Man at his best, no matter how disheveled he is – Darrow may have originated The Comb Over, and seems often in his photographs to be permanently rumpled. It’s a fine performance.
Of course, almost everyone here is rumpled here to varying degrees. It’s July in the un-air conditioned Mid South. The defendant, played by Pete Winfrey, a mild but strong-willed young teacher, is being kept in a jail cell in the courthouse basement and enjoys its coolth. His sweetheart, Sigrid Wise, also seems to merely glow rather than sweat, but perhaps that’s just the well-contained romance of the era, their attraction obvious but physically restrained quite well by the two actors.
The young woman’s father, Michael Brightman, is the town’s pastor, deeply offended by any hint of evolution and preaching hellfire and damnation right and left. Brightman’s good, particularly at glowering, but why did they put him, in an era of small-town Protestantism and residual anti-Romanism, in a clerical collar? Surely the Baptist (or Methodist or Nazarene) preacher would be wearing a (probably rather shabby) suit. Jason Contini is E.K. Hornbeck, the Baltimore-based scribe who’s careful to explain that he’s a critic, not a reporter. His Hornbeck seems rather less condescending than H.L. Mencken, on whom the character is based. (You can read some of his writing about the scene there here.)
Others of note include Susie Wall as Brady’s very supportive wife, who may well be the power behind the briefcase. The costuming choices of Tracey Newcomb-Margave do far better here, as Wall emerges looking like the leading national political figure of Alton, IL, several decades ago. Young Howard Blair, playing a student of the science teacher, carries off without flaw his turn in the witness chair. It’s a large cast, with much of the second act’s jury played by audience members who volunteered to be brought onstage wearing a few accessories of the period. It’s surprisingly smoothly done, and fits right in with the very workable set from Kyra Bishop and Oliver Littleton.
Sydnie Grosberg Ronga directed, and has pulled it all together pretty well. Except for a few muffled lines early in the first act, things moved swiftly and well. It’s still an exceptionally relevant piece of theatre, but for the life of me, I don’t understand why the argument of church and state was ignored by the authors. Nevertheless, a good few hours, especially in this political climate.
Inherit the Wind
through August 28
Insight Theatre Company
Heagney Theatre at Nerinx Hall\
530 E. Lockwood Ave., Webster Groves