2013-04-26 / On The Town

PLAY REVIEW ‘Inherit the Wind’

Ideologies clash in classic courtroom drama
By Sally Carpenter

The right to think is on trial in “Inherit the Wind,” playing at the High Street Arts Center through May 12.

While the script is based on the infamous 1926 Scopes monkey trial (The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes), playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee play fast and loose with the facts to present their rebuttal to the 1950s anticommunist persecutions.

In Scopes, the ACLU was willing to finance a test case to oppose the teaching of creationism in public schools. The small town of Dayton, Tenn., took on the case for the publicity. Scopes, a substitute biology teacher, agreed to serve as the defendant and coached his students for the witness stand. Nobody predicted the resulting notoriety.

“Inherit the Wind,” set in fictional Hillsboro, any state, begins with Rachel Brown (Kayla Chaikin), the minister’s daughter, visiting Scopes-based defendant Bertram Cates (played by Christopher Bowen) while he’s awaiting trial for teaching evolution in the school.

Rachel is torn between her love for Bertram and fidelity to her father, the Rev. Jeremiah Brown (Thom Thomas), a fundamentalist preacher.

E.K. Hornbeck (Kelly Green), based on journalist H.L. Mencken, who covered the Scopes trial, arrives to report on the trial for the Baltimore Sun, which is also providing a lawyer for Cates. Hornbeck ridicules the local “yokels,” is skeptical of religion and has little regard for anything beyond his ego.

The townspeople fawn over the prosecuting counsel, Bible believer Matthew Harrison Brady (Ken Johnson), based on William Jennings Bryan.

Counsel for the defense, agnostic Henry Drummond (played by Dale Alpert and based on Clarence Darrow), slips into town at night.

Drummond is known for getting not-guilty verdicts for notorious criminals.

On a blistering hot day, the legal giants square off in the courthouse. When the judge refuses to allow the defense to use expert scientific witnesses, Drummond places Brady on the stand.

Drummond proceeds to grill Brady about Bible stories that don’t agree with modern science.

Brady feels humiliated by the inquisition, and when the trial ends he struggles to retain his former glory.

The play is not a debate on evolution but a study on intellectual freedom and mind control.

The reverend whips his followers into a frenzy during a prayer meeting. Drummond berates the townspeople for closing their minds to new thoughts. The residents have a comfortable, if not challenging, life focused on family, farm and church. While Drummond sees no harm in the teaching of evolution, the people see no reason to accept it. (It’s no coincidence that they sing “Give Me That Old-Time Religion.”)

Lest audiences think the play is anti-religion, Drummond surprisingly honors Brady for the man’s spiritual faith. Too often those who preach tolerance are antagonistic toward those they judge to have the “wrong” ideas.

The play also examines the inevitability of progress. Stating that with innovation comes responsibility, Drummond says, “You women who vote can no longer hide behind a powder puff or petticoat.” The two lawyers were once friends but as Drummond tells Brady, “Perhaps it is you who moved away by standing still.”

Johnson brings a homey touch to his character, playing Brady more as a compassionate father figure than a boisterous orator. Alpert is humorous but dedicated as the low-key trailblazer who knows the odds are against him.

Green, who’s usually cast as a likable character, plays well against type as the sarcastic, cynical journalist. Thomas is fiery as the preacher who cares more about doctrine than people.

Roger Krevenas as the judge performs a fine balancing act of keeping order and playing fair in the courtroom. Tom Puckett is delightful as Meeker, the smalltown sheriff. Nancy Solomons has a small but memorable role as Brady’s mothering wife.

The small stage evokes an authentic Old Town USA with its Main Street shops that include a hardware store with the old Sherwin Williams “Cover the Earth” logo. The period costumes are nicely done. The sound cues of nighttime crickets are great.

The ensemble members reflect the attitudes of small-town life. Director Ken Rayzor lets the story unfold at a gentle pace; in this rural town, life doesn’t zip by quickly.

“Inherit the Wind” is guilty of providing a well-spent evening for open-minded audiences seeking well-crafted dialogue and thought-provoking themes.

Running time is two hours, 20 minutes. The theater is at 45 E. High St., Moorpark.

For reservations, call ( 805) 529- 8700 or go to www.highstreetartscenter.com.

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