Sunday, November 01, 2009

Inherit the Wind

‘INHERIT THE WIND,” an onstage view

‘INHERIT THE WIND,’ which is now receiving an impressive production at the Cleveland Play House, opened on Broadway on April 21, 1955 with a cast that included Paul Muni, Ed Begley, and Tony Randall. Basically, it is the story of a situation which put John Thomas Scopes, a Dayton, Tennessee school teacher on trial for teaching Darwin’s Theory of Evolution to his students. At the time, the state of Tennessee had a law on its books preventing the teaching of the evolution of man from lower orders of animals in place of the Biblical account. That state did not repeal the Butler Act, as the law was called, until 1967.

The Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee play was, according to the authors, an attempt to criticize the then current state of McCarthyism, the anti-Communist investigations of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Lawrence commented in an interview that, "we used the teaching of evolution as a parable, a metaphor for any kind of mind control. It's not about science versus religion. It's about the right to think." Arthur Miller used a similar device in his showcasing the Salem witch trials as the basis for his anti-McCarthy play, ‘THE CRUCIBLE.’

It’s interesting to note that Lawrence was from Cleveland and Lee from Elyria.

The play opens on a scorching July day in 1925. The trial pits two legal greats against each other, Mathew Harrison Brady (William Jennings Bryan) and Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow). For twelve days, Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes (“The Monkey Trial”) captured the nation's attention as a media circus swept through Dayton, mainly fanned by the writing of liberal-leaning journalist E. K. Hornbeck (H. L. Mencken).
The script's title comes from Proverbs 11:29, which, in the King James Bible reads: “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind: and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart.”

The CPH production, under the adept direction of Seth Gordon, hits all the right notes. It is well paced, cutting the script from the traditional three-acts to a more sitable two, and keeps interest high through stressing both the humor and the captivating dialogue.

Broadway and TV veterans, Ed Dixon (Brady) and Scott Jaeck (Drummond) are both compelling in their characterizations. Scott Plate adds just the right sarcasm to the comments of Hornbeck. Dudley Swetland as the Judge, Tom White (Cates), Sarah Nedwek (as Cates’ girlfriend), and Cameron McKendry (as Howard, one of the children who testified at the trial) all are believable in their portrayals. Though I would have liked Mark Alan Gordon, as Reverend Jeremiah Brown to be filled with more fanaticism, Rohn Thomas to be more believable, and a more consistent use of the Tennessee accent by the Dayton locals, but those are just nitpicking points.
It was nice to see the Play House using many local area performers in the production. I hope this is a trend toward the future as there are good home town actors who could use the stage-time.

The Play House added a clever gimmick, filling the jury box with local lawyers, actors and volunteers. I was included in that group, so I got to see the play from the stage, as well as from my traditional seat in the audience. It was not my first experience with either the stage at CPH or with the script. As a youth, I was a Curtain Puller, one of the young thespians who learned their acting skills from the CPH staff. While a student at the University of Michigan, I participated in a staged reading of the script, portraying E K. Hornbeck. It was very pleasant to revisit past life occurrences.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ‘INHERIT THE WIND’ gets an excellent production at CPH. For those who saw the play in the past, a repeat visit is worth the time. For those who have not had the pleasure of viewing the Lawrence and Lee script, this is an excellent opportunity. Good job!