The years have not been good to “Inherit the Wind,” the 1955 play in which Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee used a landmark evolution trial to comment on Sen. Joe McCarthy’s hunt for commies in government.
The so-called “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925 tested a state law against teaching Charles Darwin’s evolution theory. The sensational proceedings resulted in a verdict of guilty and a fine of $100 for the defendant. But it was the spectacle of William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution and Clarence Darrow for the defense that caught the public imagination, proved to be a sold-out smash hit for tourists and became the first trail ever broadcast on radio.
Lawrence and Lee fictionalized everybody and simplified the issues into one: freedom to think. They also provided a folksy backwoods setting and a couple of jolly subplots to entertain an audience which could remember the period – just 30 years earlier – pretty accurately.
Today, it’s been nearly a century since the trial and six decades since the events it was meant to address. Free thought has done fairly well in the interim but such battles are never fully won. And evolution? Just watch the news. Some flyover state is always hatching a new anti-Darwin law.
Shoot, there’s a Creationism Museum out between El Cajon and Lakeside.
I can only speculate why Adrian Noble added “Inherit the Wind” to the Old Globe Theatre’s summer Shakespeare rotation. There’s nothing like free thought in “Richard III” and very little else in “As You Like It.”
Quite possibly Noble decided the show had two or three roles that leading actors might rush to inhabit. Or maybe he felt a duty to a once-prominent American play that rarely gets done because of the large cast requirements.
Either way, his duty is done.
The real William Jennings Bryan was a complicated character whose contradictions confuse a 21st Century audience: A liberal Democrat who ran for President three times, he also was a prohibitionist, a peacenik and a devout Presbyterian who used his oratory skills to rail against the Darwin and evolution.
This play’s “Matthew Harrison Brady” is a simpler soul, dreaming of lost glories, preening in the adulation of yokels and looking for his next fried-chicken fix. In the same way, this “Henry Drummond” is a scrubbed up and ennobled version of Clarence Darrow, an eloquent defense lawyer who had recently been on trial himself for bribing a jury.
What so fascinated the public at the time, and the playwrights 30 years later, was the clash between these famed orators who were so split – Darrow was a emphatic agnostic – on old-time religion. The climax of the trial, Darrow’s questioning of Bryan on the Bible’s accuracy, was thrown out by the judge and had no bearing on the inconclusive verdict.
Lawrence and Lee makes it a runaway win for their “Drummond.” He ties “Brady” into the usual knots surrounding literal Bible interpretations – How long was a day if there was no sun yet? – and then magnanimously lets the poor old boy down easy.
Noble shows no notion to tamper with this. Both Adrian Sparks as Brady and Robert Foxworth as Drummond get their juicy opportunities and the exchanges are satisfying spectacles of pomposity punctured. Sparks pats his belly, Foxworth crinkles his eyes and a good time is had by all.
Third billing in the Lawrence and Lee play goes to “E. K. Hornbeck,” a newspaper reporter from Baltimore meant to represent the great H. L. Mencken, a keen skeptic who could suck satire out of the bourgeoisie “…like a weasel sucks eggs,” to borrow from the melancholy Jacques in “As You Like It.” (Maybe that’s the connection between the plays? Naw…)
Here, as the old saying goes, we have a problem. I never even notice color-blind casting until it starts to fray the fabric of a play. In this rural 1920s town, dated by the excellent Deirdre Clancy costumes, the shining black face and the bright white suit of Joseph Marcell (such a hoot as Touchstone in “AYLI”) would be a fire alarm at a prayer meeting. And, as “Hornbeck,” he’s already the quintessential outa-town trouble-maker, making trouble as we watch. I find some of Marcell’s broader humor and shrill sarcasm unfortunate choices, too. But, then, the part is written with no subtlety at all.
There are few similar hesitations with Jacques C. Smith, a black actor playing the bailiff, but this is a straightforward supporting role which soon blends into the mix. The “Hornbeck” role exists to provoke. What would have been the biggest provocation of all, at that time and place, is ignored.
The rest of this production, all the stereotypes and spear-carriers, are well-drilled and buttoned down. Despite Ralph Funicello’s awkward piles of tables and chairs which must endlessly be dragged into varying platforms, the actions flows along reasonably well.
It just seems like there’s not enough substance for the effort required. The sung hymns are sweet but eventually cloy. Alan Burrett never gets enough light on the set to support all this talk of a hot summer. Even the paper advertising fans look wrong somehow.
Maybe Noble thought the lively rhetoric and the period bombast would grease the skids for some parallel with today’s fundamentalists. Doesn’t work for me.
[box type=”shadow”] “Inherit the Wind” by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee at the Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, in repertory through Sept. 25, 2012.
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