Thursday, October 29, 2009

Inherit the Wind, Cleveland Play House

(Scott Jaeck as Drummond interrogates Ed Dixon as Brady)

It is literally impossible to imagine the star power that was on hand when Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan duked it out in the famous 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial. Their intellectual jousting is captured in Inherit the Wind, a revival of the 1955 play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee now at the Cleveland Play House.

This is just the kind of show the Play House should knock out of the park, and it does thanks to two stellar performances in the lead roles, supported by a phalanx of local acting talent. And while a couple of director Seth Gordon’s decisions can be parsed, there is little room for kvetching. This is a primo evening of engrossing theater.

Of course, the Scopes Trial was all about the evolution debate—a contretemps that continues, sadly, to this day. But this clash of titans that took place in the super-religious south featured two larger-than-life personalities. Darrow (called Henry Drummond in this fictionalized account) was a precursor of colorful attorneys to come such as F. Lee Bailey, Johnnie Cochran and Melvin Belli. An avowed agnostic and sharp-tongued wit, Drummond has the best lines in the play.

Bryan is represented on stage as Matthew Harrison Brady, a famous lawyer who nearly won three presidential elections and served as Secretary of State. But he is also a devout Christian and Bible scholar, and he is in town to prosecute high school teacher Bertram Cates for violating state law, and the scriptures, by presenting Darwin’s theory of evolution to his students.

As Brady, Ed Dixon has the stout physicality and resonant voice to convey an intimidating presence. But Scott Jaeck's Drummond is every inch his match, walking and sitting with a slouch but rising in indignant fury when he sees individuality and rationality being trampled by what he sees as backwards religious dogma.

Everything culminates in the second act courtroom confrontation, when Drummond—having had all his scientific witnesses disallowed—calls Brady to the stand to answer questions about the Bible. Director Gordon has the two play this as a virtual comedy routine, with Drummond repeatedly getting the punch lines. This approach generates lots of laughs, but by downplaying the inherent drama it weakens the credibility of Brady’s disintegration in the moments after the jury verdict, in which Cates is found guilty (as, of course, was Scopes).

Scott Plate as E.K. Hornbeck handles the role of the cynical visiting journalist from Baltimore (the H.L. Mencken character) with arrogant good humor bordering precariously on parody. And Mark Alan Gordon, as the local preacher Reverend Jeremiah Brown, is a dour and unmoving religious dinosaur. However, his act one fire and brimstone sermon might have been more riveting had he not been positioned upstage, where he’s far away from the audience and we can only see the backs of his adoring crowd, not their rapt faces.

Sarah Nedwek has a number of telling moments as the conflicted Rachel (she’s fond of Cates, but the daughter of the Reverend), and Tom White makes Cates himself a believable scapegoat in this tussle of church and state separation.

After watching it all again, you may be amazed and bewildered that some states and local school districts are still trying to ban the teaching of evolution. That fact, ironically, may be one piece of evidence against Darwin’s theory: some people, apparently, remain fossils forever.

Inherit the Wind
Through November 15 at the
Cleveland Play House,
8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000

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