How do you stage a revival in the Valley — portions of which qualify as California’s Bible Belt — of the nearly 60-year-old classic play “Inherit the Wind,” which bats around the issue of teaching evolution vs. creationism in schools?
If you’re the Woodward Shakespeare Festival, it seems you do it as even-handedly as you can. Director Gabriela Lawson scrupulously avoids taking sides in this tale, a slightly fictionalized account of the famed “Scopes Monkey Trial,” in which a small-town Tennessee teacher in 1925 was prosecuted for teaching his students about evolution.
That objectivity lends a strong historical sense to this production. The tone and tenor of a small town whose inhabitants fear the attacks of godless “science” on what they perceive to be ironclad Biblical truth are nicely captured. So is the frustration of people who believe that religion has no place in a public-school classroom.
But theater isn’t a voter-information pamphlet. From a dramatic standpoint, I found this production (which continues through Aug. 10) to be curiously inert. Despite two nice leading performances as the famed opposing attorneys on the case, the production stirred in me neither outrage, exhilaration, nor even much introspection. The best I could conjure was a slight bemusement that the arguments in the creationism-evolution debate haven’t seemed to have budged in 90 years. (Was a Biblical “day” 24 hours before the sun was created? Or a couple of billion years? You can find those arguments raging today.)
Michael Harrison delivers a robust, charismatic performance as Matthew Brady, a prominent politician, who has come to the town of Hillsboro to prosecute the case against Bert Cates (nicely played by Mark Ryan), the teacher on trial. Opposing him is defense attorney Henry Drummond (a strong Hal H. Bolen II), a famed attorney and former friend of Brady. Students of the Scopes trial will recognize that Brady is modeled after William Jennings Bryan, and Drummond is obviously Clarence Darrow.
The play opens with Brady’s arrival in town by train. (Lawson stages that “arrival” high up on the stage’s second level, which seems an odd choice. So is her decision to stage a key scene between the imprisoned Cates and his friend Rachel, played by Megan DeWitt, on that awkward second level, with scattered characters below — much closer to the audience — distracting from the action by moving around.) Later we meet Drummond, who realizes the trial will gain national attention, with people seeing it as a duke-out between the two high-powered attorneys. The play’s second act is devoted to the trial itself.
Playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee declare in the play’s notes that the focus on the Scopes trial is not meant as a historical account. Their intent was seen instead as a commentary on the “mind control” issues prompted by the McCarthyism anti-Communist crusade. As a hard-bitten newspaperman, the pivotal character of Hornbeck (Marc Gonzalez) offers in a series of caustic commentaries what is presumably the intellectual link between McCarthyism and Scopes. But Gonzalez struggles in this aspect of his role, never bridging in a believable way the “right to think” theme.
Interestingly, there is a classic American play that very much captures in parable the menace of McCarthyism. That play, of course, is “The Crucible,” which seems very much relevant today. Compared to it, “Inherit the Wind” pales, even though at first glance it would seem to be ripped from the headlines. And this production, by playing it so safe, never ignites.
PICTURED: Megan DeWitt, playing Rachel Brown, and Mark Ryan, playing Bert Cates, in “Inherit the Wind.” (Bee photo by Craig Kohlruss)