Friday, April 20, 2007

Inherit the Wind

This is the second excellent production of a play from the 1950s I have seen in the last month, and both times the shows featured themes that should have made them dated by now. Unfortunately, homophobia and debate over teaching evolution are as timely now as they were when “Tea and Sympathy” and “Inherit the Wind” were originally presented.
I saw my first production of “Inherit the Wind” in the early 1980s at Baltimore’s Center Stage and wouldn’t have imagined that a quarter century later its story would still be current. “Wind” is a fictionalized retelling of the 1925 Scopes Monkey trial, named for John Scopes, a science teacher in Tennessee tried and convicted for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution in violation of a state law forbidding the teaching of any theory that conflicted with the biblical account of divine creation. The fiery case pitted famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow against three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.
The fictional defense lawyer, Henry Drummond, played to perfection by Christopher Plummer, knows human nature when he asks his young client, “You don’t believe this kind of thing is ever finished, do you?” He wants Bert Cates (Benjamin Walker) to fight for the right to teach evolution as a way of opening doors for the next person to do so. And yes, people are still fighting this fight.
Even if the issue weren’t so relevant today, this revival of “Inherit the Wind” would be well worth seeing. The two hours flew by, filled with strong performances across the board -- Brian Dennehy plays Matthew Harrison Brady, Mr. Plummer’s sparring partner -- great staging that includes seating audience members on stage to give the appearance of a full courtroom and a lively gospel quartet that had us clapping along before the show began.
As it happens, this production is both well staged and timely. When people are afraid to hear something counter to what they’ve always believed -- then or now -- they react strongly. “The right to think is not on trial here,” the judge, played by Terry Beaver, says.
“The right to think is very much on trial here,” Drummond shoots back.
But Brady is unmoved. “I do not think about things I do not think about,” he says smugly. He is supported wholeheartedly in his fight against the teaching of evolution by the townsfolk, who carry signs proclaiming “Take Back America for Christ.” I’ve received phone calls and mail expressing this same message.
I wonder what the authors, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, would have thought if they could have peeked into the future and seen their story still playing out today. Would they have bothered to write the play? Theater, after all, is meant to make people think, but too many people don’t think about what they don’t think about.
One person in town does understand, Rachel Brown (Maggie Lacey), Cates’ girlfriend and fellow teacher. “It’s not as simple as that, black or white, good or bad,” she says.
She’s right, but one has to think to understand this. The others are too busy accepting unquestioningly what they’ve always heard. Drummond understands the reason. When Brady dies at the end of the trial, Drummond defends him as a great man who “got lost looking for God too far up and far away.”
As do so many people, which is why “Inherit the Wind” will likely have a future full of timely revivals. An even older source than this 52-year-old play tells us so. It’s from Proverbs, chapter 11 verse 29: “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind: and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart.”

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