Is there any play from the 1950s more relevant in 2008 than Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s Inherit The Wind?  It’s been 83 years since Tennessee schoolteacher John Scopes was put on trial for teaching Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in the classroom, yet only a half dozen years ago, a suburban Atlanta school board voted unanimously to allow teachers to introduce students to “different views about the origins of life”—a codeword for “creationism,” and John McCain’s choice to be Vice President of this country is a woman who says she is open to teaching “creationism” in public schools.

With Darwin still being challenged by conservatives, Action! Theatre Co.’s sensational revival of the 1955 Broadway hit is timely indeed.
It’s also a revolutionary approach to the show.  Since the original Broadway production featured a cast of 65, and the published acting edition employs 43 actors in the cast, director Tiger Reel’s decision to pare the cast down to 13 is a radical one. But it works, boy does it work!
Director Reel explains his concept by saying that the 10 actors of the “ensemble” function “as a kind of Greek chorus, with actors portraying multiple characters and remaining onstage or in the audience through the play, playing both accused and accuser.”  In this way, Reel’s Inherit The Wind has much of the feel of MCCV’s production of Corpus Christi, with its mostly young actors playing characters of all ages and crossing gender lines.  Though on paper this might sound confusing, in performance it is effective indeed.
From the moment the audience takes their seats, it is clear that this production of Inherit The Wind will be unlike any which have preceded it.  A four-member band is onstage performing folk songs and hymns as the cast sits or stands scattered around the stage reading, writing, whittling … doing the kinds of things small town folk might have done to pass the time on a hot summer day in 1925.
Excitement is in the air.  Former Presidential candidate Matthew Harrison Brady (based on real life William Jennings Bryan) is coming to town to prosecute the case against schoolteacher Bertram Cates, accused of breaking a law which decrees “… that it shall be unlawful for any teacher … to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” A banner is raised above the courthouse stating “Read Your Bible” as townsfolk carry signs proclaiming “Darwin Is Wrong,” “Down With Darwin,” and “My Ancestors Weren’t Apes.” 
When it is learned that Cates will be defended by none other than Henry Drummond (a fictionalized version of Clarence Darrow, the greatest defense lawyer of his day), the world outside small town Tennessee begins to take note, especially when ace Baltimore Herald reporter E.K. Hornbeck arrives to report the story to the nation. As one of the characters remarks, it’s like “Barnum and Bailey come to town.”
Reel’s production is filled with memorable moments, as when “little” Melinda (she’s played by an adult) screams in terror when she finds herself face to face with the imposing Brady. Jury selection features several female cast members portraying male potential jurors to entertaining effect. Actors take seats in the front row, which serves as a church pew for Sunday services, and soon the theater is filled with Yes Lords! and Amens! A trial highlight is the testimony of a schoolboy named Howard, whose interrogation causes Brady to declare that “everyone within the sound of this boy’s voice, is moved by his tragic confusion.” When expert upon expert in the field of science is denied the right to testify, there is the disturbing thought that the same thing might happen today in certain parts of this country.

Many of the lines from Lawrence and Lee’s script stand out as being more apropos today than ever. Drummond declares ever so sagely, “When you lose your power to laugh, you lose the power to think straight,” and later, when Brady asks him, “Why is it that you have moved so far away from me?”, Drummond replies, “Perhaps it is you who have moved away—by standing still.”  When the judge declares that, “The right to think is not on trial here.” Drummond insists that “The right to think is very much on trial,” and later asks Brady, “Why do you deny the one faculty of man [that] raises him above the other creatures of the earth?”  Powerful and apt words all of these, today as much as ever.
The lead roles of Drummond and Brady have been brought to life by some of the finest actors of the past 60 years, including Brian Dennehy, Kirk Douglas, Jack Lemmon, Frederic March, Christopher Plummer, Jason Robards, George C. Scott, and Spencer Tracy. Here the plum roles go to Robert Craig (as Drummond) and James Rice (as Brady). Both deliver nearly great performances, with the justly famous interrogation of Brady by Drummond on the witness stand still the play’s most powerful scene, highlighted by Craig’s passionate defense of truth and Rice’s breakdown of a man faced, perhaps for the first time, with doubt. That being said, if ever two roles require actors to be letter perfect with their lines, these are those two roles, and Craig and Rice are not yet there, though hopefully will be as the run continues.
There’s not a weak link in the ensemble Reel has gathered for this production, starting with a snappy Julie Terrell, terrific as reporter Hornbeck, a role heretofore played by a man, but here cast effectively as a 20s flapper with moxie to spare. The rest of the ensemble each shine in a number of roles. Karen DeThomas is a standout as Cates’ girlfriend and preacher’s daughter Rachel Brown, superb in a pair of breakdown scenes. John Paul Karliak brings dignity and intelligence to the role of Cates. Lauren Hathaway and Raymond Donahey are memorable as both children (she’s Melinda and he’s Howard) and adults (he’s a fire and brimstone Reverend Brown and she’s a crusty feed store clerk/potential juror). The others, whose work is equally laudable, are Redetha Deason (Mrs. McClain), A.J. Diamond (the judge), Jennifer Gabbert (Mrs. Krebs), Georgan George (Mrs. Brady), Dennis McCourt (Tom Davenport), and Nick Polito (Meeker).
The Action! Orchestra is made up of four outstanding musicians, Becca Fuchs (vocals, harmonica), Matt Van Winkle (guitar, vocals), Jeff Miles (guitar), and Phoebe Parros (violin), and their songs are particularly well chosen: “Amazing Grace” (a beautiful a capella solo by Fuchs), “That Old Time Religion,” a bluegrass ”Ballad Of Scopes,” “Monkey Business Down In Tennessee,” and “You Can’t Make A Monkey Out Of Me.”
Director Reel has also designed the production’s extremely versatile set, which manages to serve as courtroom, jailhouse, town square, and numerous other locales, with the estimable aid of Matt Richter’s lighting design. Sound design and costumes are uncredited, but both are first rate.
After the performance, I was told that the widow of one of the play’s authors attended on opening night and commented that she wished that the recent Broadway revival had had the imagination of this production. Tiger Reel’s concept is a radical one, but one that works, and combined with the fine performances of his baker’s dozen actors, makes this Inherit The Wind a production well worth seeing and savoring, and certain to provoke much post-performance discussion.

Art/Works Theatre, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
August 30, 2008
Photos: Lisa Vachon

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