Inherit the Wind may be a staple of community theater, but can a fictionalized account written 58 years ago about something that happened 88 years ago resonate with American audiences today?
While the play is anchored by the legal dance between Henry Drummond (based on Clarence Darrow) and Matthew Brady (based on William Jennings Bryan) during the infamous “Monkey Trial,” its authors never intended to write a period piece. Their production notes tell us the setting is a city called Hillsboro in an unnamed state at a time known only as “not long ago.”
“It might have been yesterday. It could be tomorrow,” they say. Oh, and it’s not really about evolution at all.
Writer Jerome Lawrence once told Newsday that he and Robert Edwin Lee “used the teaching of evolution as a parable, a metaphor for any kind of mind control. It’s not about science versus religion; it’s about the right to think.” Debuting in 1955, Inherit the Wind was at its inception a harsh critique on McCarthyism.
If the writers truly intended the play to be set in an era “not long ago,” it’s a stage note that most modern directors, including Springfield’s Laurie McCoy, ignore. Her assembled cast of 28 in the current Springfield production offer the traditional southern 1920s-era retelling of the well-known play. Outdated speech and colloquialisms notwithstanding, one has to wonder what a modern twist would do for a script meant to stand as mirror to reflect oppression in any time. There is no modern twist here.
In Inherit the Wind, we watch as a conflicted fundamentalist town is shaken to its core when young Bert Cates (based on John Scopes) dares to teach Darwin’s theory of evolution to his high school science students. Brady (played by Rich McCoy) and Drummond (Jim Dahlquist) arrive to match wits in an epic battle of good versus evil.
But which is good and which is evil?
That’s the strength and challenge of Lawrence and Lee’s script. Like the townspeople of Hillsboro, we’re meant to be conflicted. And that’s challenging because it means the actors must come with a practiced nuance that is sometimes lacking in the Hoogland’s production. Even the cast’s best actors at times offer one-dimensional portrayals instead of bringing the layered subtext crucial to mastering these difficult characters. Are the lawyers staunch adversaries filled with contempt or esteemed foes filled with mutual respect? Drummond has a dramatic change of heart (and perhaps belief) in the last scene that would have been more powerful if the path to it had been laid earlier in the show.
An early scene in Act Two in which Brady and Drummond spar is the show’s best. There we get to watch two brilliant lawyers attempt to undo each other in a smart and fast-paced argument on faith, morality, science and absolute truth.
The Reverend Brown’s (Harvey Mack) fire and brimstone speech in which he prays for damnation upon anyone who asks for “grace for this sinner” (Cates) is also moving, but the script’s portrayal of Christians as hateful bigots or stubborn yokels who refuse to have an original thought is a bit tired by now. The writing is good, but neither the religious fundamentalists nor the condescending academics are much more than caricatures. Both are right and both are wrong. We’re not enthused to indignation or inspired to introspection – we simply watch. Or worse, we’re driven by our own biases to take sides and form early opinions that keep us from asserting the one right the play wants us to assert – the right to think freely. Our beliefs are only strengthened by having withstood scrutiny.
Inherit the Wind was once about McCarthyism and since the last of those Senate subcommittees ended 59 years ago, a successful adaptation that aspires to be more than a history lesson must connect deeper themes to current events or ageless philosophical questions. As we watch Drummond and Brady spar over faith and reason, evolution and design, the freedom for thought, and the search for truth, we have to be shown ways to connect their journeys with our own.
John Paris – one of the production’s bright spots – helps us along with his portrayal of E.K. Hornbeck. Sent from Baltimore to cover the trial for his newspaper, the sarcastic and wisecracking Hornbeck, like any good reporter, has more questions than answers. He’s a classic writer’s device designed to help protagonists communicate thoughts and beliefs to the audience. If there is any introspection to be done, he provokes it, asking Brady and Drummond the hard questions we’re all asking as we watch. The problem is, in Hillsboro, they seem to find the answers a bit too easily.
Despite its flaws – whether with the script or with the production – Inherit the Wind can still speak to current events.
There is indeed something timeless about the show in light of a government shutdown blamed on the Affordable Care Act. Writers Lawrence and Lee had McCarthy; we have Sen. Ted Cruz. If Wind once served as commentary on the paranoia about communists in the State Department, perhaps it now speaks to a nation where an extreme faction of a major party can hijack the political process by speaking so loudly that others are afraid to speak up.
The people of Hillsboro aren’t interested in evidence. They prefer to dismiss a new idea without understanding its content.
“We do not need the testimony of experts,” they say.
Desperate to make one last spectacle, Brady clamors to the WGN microphone even after the verdict is read. From the balcony, he looks a bit like a junior senator from Texas preparing to read Green Eggs and Ham on the Senate floor.
Inherit the Wind: Oct. 11-12 at 8 p.m. and Oct. 13 at 2 p.m. at the Hoogland Center for the Arts. Tickets are $18 general admission ($17 senior/student, $10/each for student groups of 10+). Contact the Hoogland Center for the Arts box office at 217-523-2787 or www.hcfta.org.
Zach Baliva is a media producer and filmmaker from Chatham. His current project is a student loan documentary at http://deferredmovie.com/.