A classic comes to the New Salem stage

Inherit the Wind could be about yesterday. Or tomorrow.

click to enlarge A classic comes to the New Salem stage
Chuck McCue as E.K. Hornbeck, Deb VanDeVoort as Mrs. Blair and Connor Anderson as Howard.

One of the plays that tends to be revived around the country through the years is the drama Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee based on the famous 1925 Scopes "Monkey" Trial about a young Tennessee man who taught a high school class about evolution, was fired and faced a trial at the county courthouse.

Theatre in the Park at New Salem opens the play this week on Friday, running Aug. 12-14 and 18-20, the final production of the season.

Set in the fictional town of Hillsboro, Tennessee, Inherit the Wind is a kind of epic Grant Wood painting-come-to-life about a small town when the eyes of the nation were focused on what was happening there.

New Salem's outdoor stage was designed for exactly this kind of production and director Laurie McCoy has assembled a strong ensemble of actors led by Tom Lawton, Rich McCoy, Chuck McCue and Roy Pyers.

This trial became the "trial of the century" at the time because it drew two giant figures in the country – famous defense lawyer Clarence Darrow (named Henry Drummond in the play and performed by Tom Lawton) and well-known minister-orator William Jennings Bryan (renamed Matthew Brady here, played by Rich McCoy) – to argue the case against each other. Their participation drew reporters from around the country.

Roy Pyers, as the teacher, says in Act I: "It's like Barnum and Bailey come to town."

This was the first of the media circuses.

Tom Lawton first stood on this stage after grad school in 1981 with John Ahart's summer stock company The Great American People Show. He came back each year thru 1988.

click to enlarge A classic comes to the New Salem stage
Tom Lawton as Henry Drummond.

"The history and ensemble nature of the work is what spoke to me," said Lawton about those early years. "When I step on that stage today, monologues and speeches of all the characters come to mind and roll off my tongue as if it were the early 80s."

I asked Lawton what it's been like to work on this play today. Lawton: "Near the end of the play Drummond says, 'You don't suppose this kind of thing is ever finished, do you? Tomorrow it'll be something else and another fella will have to stand up.' We saw it in McCarthyism when Joseph Welch asked, 'Have you no decency, sir?,' Watergate with John Dean, and now Liz Cheney with Jan. 6. Our political experiment will always be challenged and that challenge only comes close to success when the public becomes apathetic and/or buys into lies they know to be false."

This will be Rich McCoy's second time playing Brady. When he and Lawton spar on the stage, fireworks ensue.

Inherit the Wind premiered on Broadway in 1955 as a theatrical response to the 1954 McCarthy hearings in Washington. Playwrights Lawrence and Lee, along with Arthur Miller's The Crucible, were raising a mirror up to society to see themselves in the townspeople who decided that evolution was a war against religion. The play ran for three years, followed by a long national tour, and eventually a 1960 film with Spencer Tracy and Frederick March.

The authors of the play were specific that their play was not history, but through the years, when asked about this story, most Americans' knowledge of it is from the play and the film, and of course that wasn't really the way it all took place. The play is a simplified and streamlined version of what actually happened.

In the script the authors spell out that it doesn't take place in 1925, but "not too long ago. It might have been yesterday, it could be tomorrow."

The play is very theatrical in the telling – which is what theater is all about – and I don't want to give away major plot points here. Go to New Salem and see for yourselves, especially if you've never seen a production. Inherit the Wind is considered a barnstormer classic of American theater. Not classic in the realm of Death of a Salesman, Our Town, Raisin in the Sun, etc., but this play more than most has caused countless arguments and heated discussions. It will be interesting to see how it plays in today's climate.

Director Laurie McCoy has brought together a large cast of actors from around the area. Many are character actors who have performed on area stages for decades: Patrick Foster, Jim Hepworth, Dan McLaughlin, Chuck McCue, Andy VanDevoort, along with a group of talented young newcomers.

Inherit the Wind runs Aug. 12-14 and 18-20. Tickets at www.theatreinthepark.net or call (217) 632-5440. Showtime is 8 p.m.

Phil Funkenbusch of Havana can be reached at funkenbuschp@gmail.com.

To learn more, read SUMMER FOR THE GODS: THE SCOPES TRIAL and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion, by Edward J. Larson, winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize in History.

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