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There’s nothing more dangerous than an idea, and little more theatrically riveting than watching two brilliant verbal adversaries jousting with only words as weapons.
In 1925, a young high school biology teacher in Tennessee was arrested for teaching evolution – a violation of the state’s Butler Act. The American Civil Liberties Union wanted the law tested at the Supreme Court level and asked for a volunteer; that volunteer was football coach and part-time biology teacher John Scopes.
The Scopes trial, the first to be broadcast live on radio, caused a firestorm of publicity. The prosecutor was ace orator and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan; Scopes was defended by well-known defense attorney Clarence Darrow. Scopes was convicted of a misdemeanor, fined and released, but the Butler Act remained in effect until 1964.
Fast-forward 30 years, when Americans including playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee were suffering through the McCarthy era, another time when ideas were suspect and freedom of thought under attack. Lawrence and Lee saw the parallels, and “Inherit The Wind,” set in the summer “not too long ago” in “a small town” (here called Hillsboro) posits a similar though not identical case. The playwrights take pains to explain that “Inherit The Wind” is theater, not history.
“Inherit The Wind” plays through Sept. 30 at the Lowell Davies Festival Theatre in repertory with Shakespeare’s “Richard III” and “As You Like It” as part of The Old Globe’s summer Shakespeare festival. Adrian Noble directs.
As in Scopes, two legal titans face off in a trial about the teaching of evolution in biology class. Here Bert Cates (Dan Amboyer) stands accused and will be defended by Henry Drummond (Robert Foxworth), thanks to the Baltimore “Sentinel.” This news is brought by the other representative of that newspaper, cynical reporter E.K. Hornbeck (Joseph Marcell, whose role is based on H.L. Mencken of the Baltimore “Sun”), an unabashed partisan for Cates who serves as a sort of narrator.
Adrian Sparks stars as prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady. Sparks is terrific as the round, folksy, smart, egomaniacal and religious counsel – who also has the people on his side.
Foxworth is in top form as Drummond, the fancy defense attorney imported from Chicago, angular of aspect and approach and hated by most townspeople.
Brady finds out early that Cates has at least one local defender in fellow teacher Rachel Brown (Vivia Font), and once he learns she is the daughter of the local fire-and-brimstone preacher (Charles Janasz, at his hateful best), plans to call her as a witness for the prosecution.
One of the best scenes is Brady’s interrogation of the timorous Rachel on the stand, he trying to elicit damning testimony, she trying neither to say anything incriminating nor to displease dad.
In fact, the whole cast is excellent, as are the costumes, lighting and music (several choral hymns add to the atmosphere).
But the confrontation between the attorneys is the centerpiece, and Foxworth and Sparks do not disappoint, especially when Drummond, denied the testimony of the scientific experts he has brought, puts Brady on the stand to testify about the Bible. It’s a great piece of theater.
Unfortunately, Noble undermines the effort with a head-scratcher of a set using only a number of rustic tables and chairs that look like they were confiscated from a nearby grammar school. These are dragged in and around, some left unused, others occasionally stacked one on another (perhaps with a chair on the top), forcing the actors to simultaneously scale the heights and remember their lines while trying not to break their necks.
Still, “Inherit The Wind” is worth seeing as one of the trilogy of based-on-history plays presented this season – “The Scottsboro Boys” and “Parade” – all frighteningly still relevant in these times.
“Inherit The Wind” plays in repertory with “As You Like It” and “Richard III” through Sept. 30 at The Old Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.
For tickets, call 619-234-5623 or visit HERE.
To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.