by Terrance Mc Arthur
A teacher on trial for teaching evolution in the classroom. In this era of creationism/evolution controversies, it sounds improbable, but possible…but it did happen…in the 1920s. In 1955, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee turned the story of the Scopes Monkey Trial into a play, Inherit the Wind, which is the Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s 20th-century play for the 2013 season, playing through August 10, sandwiched between A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Julius Caesar. It’s a gently grayed look at the past, and a warning against thought control.
Director Gabriela Lawson uses quiet details to make the point that both sides of the controversy are people acting on what they think is right, whether it’s a man handing out Bibles (Martin Martinez), a cynical newspaperman (Marc Gonzalez) out to get a story, a minister (Robert Daniels) determined to keep the sin of modern thought out of the town’s classrooms, a storekeeper (GJ Thelin) who shows kindness to people on both sides of the issue, or the confused high-school teacher (Mark Ryan) who ignited the whole fuss by reading a chapter from a textbook that broke a state law.
Looming above the issue are the two lawyers imported to prosecute and defend the teacher. Former Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan represented the anti-evolution camp, while Clarence Darrow, whose brilliant defenses had won freedom in many cases deemed open-and-shut. Michael Harrison plays Brady, the Bryan representation, and Hal H. Bolen II takes the Festival stage as Drummond, the play’s version of Darrow. Harrison is towering and majestic, rolling the broad tones of the silver-tongued orator. Bolen is quieter, questioning, and subtle, using his real-life legal experience in a role he has long deserved to play.
As Cates, the teacher, Ryan shows the assurance that he is right along with fear of the consequences of his actions on the innocent, his students and the woman he loves (Megan DeWitt)…who is also the daughter of the preacher who wants to see him punished. DeWitt is lovely and distraught, torn by her loyalties to family and love. Daniels gets to spew fire and brimstone in the name of all the forces that want to limit the freedom of thought, be they on the left or the right.
Hornbeck, the newspaper columnist, sneers at the simplicity of the townsfolk and what he sees as their gullibility. Gonzalez has an easy smoothness, a little bit oily, that makes his scorn ring hollow against the people’s earnestness. Donald Gilbert’s Mayor slides from civic pride at the attention shone on the town to fear of the public opinion that might brand them as backward hicks. Thelin appears gaunt and pale, a living embodiment of Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era photographs, while she maintains a dignity and charity that belies the image presented by the press. Suzanne Grazyna, so perky in WSF’s Midsummer, lends a soft dignity to Mrs. Brady, watching her husband’s turn in the public spotlight with concern for his health and reputation.
This 58-year-old play about an 88-year-old trial still manages to touch on modern issues and stir up conversation and debate. Sounds like it’s a perfect fit for a festival honoring a playwright whose plays are still relevant after 400 years.
Performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 8pm on the stage at the north end of Woodward Park. The play is free, but park admission is $5 per carload. For further information and preferred seating, go to www.woodwardshakespeare.org. You can learn more about the Festival from a recent article here in KRL.
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