Trial by fire and brimstone: CNY Playhouse’s ‘Inherit the Wind’ takes religious fundamentalism to court
Even firm believers in evolution can agree that the company’s well-staged production is a result of ‘intelligent design’
It’s been close to 90 years since the infamous “Scopes trial,” named after John Scopes — the public school teacher arrested and put on trial for violating Tennessee’s “Butler Anti-Evolution Law” forbidding the teaching of evolution in the schools. But the clash of science and religion, brought to life in the 1955 play Inherit the Wind, is far from settled. School boards continue to crusade for banning public school science textbooks that do not give equal credence to creationism and intelligent design as they do evolution. And the intolerance goes all the way to Washington. (Raise your hand if you remember the 2008 Republican presidential debate, where three GOP candidates raised their hands asserting they do not believe in evolution.)
CNY Playhouse tackles the issues raised in the celebrated play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee and does so in light-hearted fashion — with a wink and nod to the play’s touches of levity. The authors’ message still comes through loud and clear in this production directed by Sharee Lemos, but the journey is as amiable as it is meaningful.
Inherit the Wind is based loosely on the Scopes trial of the mid-1920s town in Tennessee at which Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan (personified in this play as Bryan Henry Drummond and Matthew Harrison Brady, respectively) squared off famously in what the press touted as “The Monkey Trial.” Lawrence and Lee completed the play in 1950, although it was not actually staged until January 1955. The authors’ immediate intention was to combat the pervasive atmosphere of anti-intellectualism fostered by the anti-communist, fundamentalist hysteria of the McCarthy era.
Mounting Inherit the Wind is no easy task, especially for a newcomer such as CNY Playhouse. The play calls for a large cast, with the drama resting on the shoulders of two strongly defined characters, Matthew Harrison Brady and Henry Drummond. These two titans will battle each other in a colossal matchup of wits that, if we substitute a boxing ring for the courtroom, is worthy of the mighty Ali-Frazier heavyweight championship fights.
Ideally, these two characters should be evenly matched. After all, there’s not much drama in a first-round knockout. In the current production, however, veteran local actor Joe Pierce as Brady gets the upper hand over his principal adversary Henry Drummond (played by Tom Minion) almost immediately, and steals the show with his booming voice and commanding stage presence.
Once an unsuccessful candidate for President, Pierce’s character Brady is never at a loss for words, and those words string together — slickly and predictably — as a never-ending parade of stump speeches. Pierce, whose shirt is carefully stuffed at the belly to give him a portly look that adds credence to his fatal heart attack shortly after the conclusion of the trial, crafted a believable image of William Jennings Bryan and captured the attention of the audience whenever he took to the stage. Handkerchief in-hand at all times, Pierce was the only character to look genuinely affected by the town’s oppressive July heat spell.
Pierce’s courtroom antics were believably bold, clever and cunning. I count myself among the evolutionists, but I was nevertheless prepared to chuck it all by the end of Act Two for that “old time religion” Pierce was selling. Or at the very least, buy a vacuum cleaner from the man.
As Henry Drummond, Minion gave a solid performance as the enlightened seasoned defense attorney who took the unpopular case as a matter of conscience, not money, and is the recipient of some of the wittiest lines and snappy comebacks in the play. Still, he could not muster enough charisma to trump Pierce for the sympathies of the audience.
Minion nevertheless made the most of his moments of mirth, such as the courtroom scene where all 15 of his expert defense witnesses (each of them a scientist) are denied by the judge who sustained the objections made by Brady at every turn. “Do you have any objections to my calling an expert witness on the Bible?,” asks Drummond. “Of course not,” chuckles Brady. Drummond then calls an astonished Brady to the stand.
Minion’s most convincing work comes at the end, when he chides E.K. Hornbeck — the cynical newspaper reporter from Baltimore modeled after H.L. Mencken — for callously deriding Brady after learning of his sudden and unexpected death.
“You have no more right to spit on his religion than you have a right to spit on my religion, or my lack of it,” admonishes Drummond. At the end of the play, in a telling gesture, Minion slowly and ceremoniously places both the Darwin book and the Bible in his briefcase. The message comes through loud and clear: Science and religion can coexist in harmony, if given the chance to do so.
As Hornbeck, Ed Mastin used his weighty baritone to good effect throughout the play, giving the quintessential media monger the proper degree of cockiness and acerbity as he mocks most every aspect of the trial and its principals. It’s important to understand that Mastin’s character, an atheist, is not intended to be the voice of reason. Though he ridicules religious zealots, Hornbeck is not so different from the fanatical Brady: Both are close-minded bigots who believe there is no room for competing interpretations as to the meaning of existence. “I’m no reporter, Colonel,” Hornbeck tells Brady during an interview. “I’m a critic.”
Bob Lamson plays his part of the no-nonsense Judge Merle Raulston with a ‘judicious’ balance of solemnity and self-importance, and looks the part. I suspect Lamson could pass himself off as a Supreme Court Justice on his next trip to Washington and manage to get away with it.
Bill Lee crafted a high-and-mighty Reverend Jeremiah Brown who all but spit bullets in spreading the word of an almighty God who — if I am to understand the Reverend correctly — has no sense of humor whatsoever. Lee conducted the pre-trial revivalist meeting in front of Brady and a lynch-mob consortium of townspeople with evangelical fervor, spewing hatred from his makeshift pulpit until Brady, every so diplomatically, suggested that perhaps the element of forgiveness is part of God’s message as well. The role of the Reverend is fictitious: There was no such character in the original Scopes trial. But his character is every bit as real as Senator Joseph McCarthy.
As the Reverend’s browbeaten daughter Rachel, Liz Russell needed some time to relax and find the right mix of her character (i.e., confused and frightened) as the oppressed daughter of an overbearing father. Russell saved her best work for the scene at the witness stand, as she watches her life unravel under the relentless grilling by
Austin Arlington, as Rachel’s boyfriend the accused teacher, Bertram Cates, makes a convincing transition from a disillusioned young man trying to do right by his students to a martyr willing to accept punishment in order to provide a path for those who will succeed him in the journey to truth and science. “Progress has never been a bargain,” Drummond reminds us. “You’ve got to pay for it.”
Among the smaller roles, Marguerite Fulton-Newton played the bit part of Mrs. Krebs to perfection, with a solid speaking voice and a look of authority that suggests her character is a card-carrying member of both the Daughters of the American Revolution and the NRA. Robert D. Miller, as the District Attorney Tom Davenport, played his role as Brady’s assistant at trial as somewhat of a wimp, and kept his speaking voice largely inaudible. If this was an intentional move it should be pointed out that Pierce’s strongly defined character is in no danger of being overshadowed by anyone in this cast. Stephen J. Brownell in the bit part as Elijah was an absolute hoot in the voire dire scene, giving me the biggest laugh of the evening.
Under the buoyant direction of Sharee Lemos there was precious little stagnancy in this two-hour production (the three acts are separated here into two halves, with a single intermission). Even though there are hoards of characters to manage in this play (21 names listed in the program not including a young girl), Lemos manages to inject a near-constant degree of anima especially evident during the crowd scenes — which run the gamut from menacing and scary (like the lynch mob in To Kill a Mockingbird) to exaggerated and comical (the God-fearing townspeople in Mel Brooks’s farcical Blazing Saddles). Lemos heightened the comedic elements of the play, from the sharp-tongued point-counterpoint volley of invective between Matthew Harrison Brady and Henry Drummond to the hilarious voire dire process vetting a decidedly biased pool of jurors.
A motley crew of redneck farmers, cowpokes, Forrest Gumpers and bible-thumping religious zealots played their parts with passion and enthusiasm, remaining in-character at all times — whether shouting ecstatic phrases of praise and Halleluiahs in counterpoint with Reverend Jeremiah Brown’s fire-and-brimstone chantings at the pre-trial rally on the steps of the courthouse, or simply waving hand-fans while sitting in the sweltering courtroom (which the script gives as a scorching 97-degrees).
Set Designer Navroz Dabu’s handsome two-tiered set frames the action that takes place both within, and outside of, the courthouse. At the top of stage right stands a handsome, wooden-framed loft that will hold spectators of townspeople (all rooting for the prosecution) during the trial. Behind them sits four tall courtroom windows, and in front of them a wooden staircase connecting the spectators to the judge’s bench and witness stand, below. At stage left sits the outside of the stone-studded county courthouse and cut-outs of trees, and inside stands tables that seat the teams for the prosecution and defense. At center is a large sign that gently reminds folks to “READ YOUR BIBLE.”
Barbara Toman’s period dress keeps the action, and the townspeople (many of them who look as if they’re straight off the set of Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show), squarely in the 1950s.
Due to a reviewing conflict with the October 11 opening night performance, I had to “settle” for a review of the Wednesday evening dress rehearsal. It’s clear from this run-through that the troupe is ready to go and ready for prime time. There was a pervasive sense of teamwork and comradery among the sizeable cast, with precious few mishaps or flubbing of lines.
The verdict is in: Beyond any reasonable doubt, CNY Playhouse’s Inherit the Wind represents community theater at its best.
What: Inherit the Wind, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee and directed by Sharee Lemos
Who: Central New York Playhouse
Where: Shoppingtown Mall, Dewitt NY (2nd floor, next to Macy’s)
Performance reviewed: Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013 (dress rehearsal)
Remaining performances: Opens 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 11 and plays through Oct. 26
Length: About 2 hours and 10 minutes
Tickets: $15 to $20; dinner and show, $34.95 (Saturdays only)
Call: 315-885-8960 or http://www.cnyplayhouse.com
Family guide: Suitable for all ages