Damn Dirty Apes

No one's gonna make a monkey outta me: Jim Pounds as Reverend Brown in 'Inherit the Wind'
Zach Curtis

A recent Gallup poll indicates that 35 percent of Americans believe that Darwinian evolution is provable fact, while 45 percent adhere to the biblical creation story (the remaining 20 percent are presumably incapacitated by the complexity of the question). That means that nearly half of us essentially say, Carbon dating, carbon schmating. From Ohio to Georgia, evangelical activists are trying to reduce evolution's status to that of one "opinion" among many, making it as questionable as the frankly daft notion that the world was created less than 10,000 years ago. It is, in other words, a good time to stage Inherit the Wind.

Fifty Foot Penguin Theater's Zach Curtis has enjoyed a run of good luck since deciding to direct this courtroom drama based on the 1925 Scopes "Monkey" trial, which saw a high school teacher threatened with prison for teaching evolution in his classroom. The culture and media have been aflame lately with the American dichotomies that Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's 1955 play so capably dissects: Christian fundamentalist/secularist, true believer/rationalist, red state/blue state. With such a backdrop lending immediacy to an already intense work, this production of Inherit the Wind is sharp, well paced, and hard-hitting. It's a staging that plucks notes of irony and occasional optimism from scenes drenched in parochialism and that particular sort of malice that arises when indefensible belief is directly challenged.

The show is almost absent a set, utilizing two rotating wooden fixtures that abstractly evoke the shop, jail, and courtroom of small-town Hillsboro, Tennessee. While obviously a low-budget gambit, this staging choice ultimately pays off by focusing attention on the cast. When a couple of desks are added in the courtroom sequences of Act 2, the resulting tableau has the visual balance of a classical painting.

With action confined to the build-up to the trial and the trial itself, the drama largely dispenses with extensive backstory or subplot (the play was written as a protest to the anti-intellectualism of the 1950s, with timing similar to using Watergate today as an allegory for governmental perfidy). Curtis's cast almost uniformly navigates roles that, with a couple of exceptions, require them to exhibit a single overriding trait in service to the story. Thus we have the squinty, imposing town preacher (Jim Pounds), who pulls off a spooky spotlit creation sermon and who otherwise gives the impression of having a particularly sour lemon tucked in his mouth. Meagan Kittridge's Rachel, the preacher's daughter, is earnest and conflicted in her defense of the accused Bertram Cates (Stephen Frethem, lanky and rueful in a performance that doesn't locate the precise balance of defiance and resignation his character might undergo).

The main fireworks are between William Harrison Brady (Bob Malos) and Henry Drummond (Bruce Hyde). Stand-ins for politician William Jennings Bryan and controversial attorney Clarence Darrow from the real-life trial, they are onetime comrades turned bitter opponents both in the courtroom and in the abstract zones of philosophy. Malos plays Brady as an overstuffed opportunist dispensing gleeful sham populism and taking matching joy in his religious demagoguery. Hyde, with a rumpled, craggy smartness, is both funny and intense as Drummond uses the courtroom to stage an existential fight. While Malos gives us a self-satisfied blowhard effortlessly manipulating the rubes (and buying his own line), we're left without a solid sense of his character's link to Drummond. The play mentions the friendship they shared in bygone days but suggests that their divergent ideas have made cordiality impossible; in this staging, though, we're left without a deeper understanding of the personality flaws that led to Brady's apparent seduction by politics and power.

A welcome note of astringency is provided by Sean Byrd's big-city newspaper reporter; Byrd plays him as sly and bemused by the primitive beliefs in the sticks, then as appropriately pissed off when the play presents us with a Drummond who harbors a religiosity of his own. Still, a character balancing Darwin and Jesus is provocative and borderline visionary today, when we're all living in the metaphorical sticks with nearly half of us stewing in undiluted biblical literalism.

Last week David Brooks opined in the New York Times that "there's been a lot of twaddle written recently about the supposed opposition between blind faith and reason." Recent twaddle? Isn't such twaddle pretty much the core of modernity? The fact is, religious faith and rational inquiry rarely two-step on the same dance floor. And while plenty of folks today are eager to pretend that the Enlightenment never happened, the history of the West has been that of embracing our own imperfect and ever-developing grasping for the truth--along with a proclivity for letting that truth inform whatever spiritual bent we might harbor. Inherit the Wind occupies just such a lofty and searching position, a drama limited in scope but energized with inquiry and an obvious sense of mission.

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