Reviewed by David Spencer
I don't usually refer to other reviews, and most of the time I don't even read them (no philosophy about that, just seems to work out that way), but I did chance upon Ben Brantley's New York Times review of Inherit The Wind, in which he said the current revival was as wooden as the set.
I've disagreed with Mr. Brantley on occasion, heaven knows he has the right to his opinion, and its even possible that on the night or afternoon he attended, the performance was somehow, inexplicably, in some crucial way, flat. And maybe the night I attended it was especially hot. Those things can happen.
But I nonetheless hope I can be forgiven some skepticism, because director Doug Hughes' production of the Jerome Lawrence/Robert E. Lee play—a dramatization of the Scopes "monkey" trial in which Clarence Darrow (re-named Henry Drummond) went head-to-head against fundamentalist conservative William Jennings Bryan (re-christened Matthew Harrison Brady) over the rights of a teacher to discuss evolution in his classes—seems too impeccably cast, designed, focused, acted and overall rendered to lose much even on an off night. I wonder, simply, if Mr. Brantley (unconsciously of course) was letting his memories of the film version color his perception of how effective the play might be. (In fact, maybe "films" is more correct, for Inherit seems to be a staple remade for each generation. The Stanley Kramer feature starred Spencer Tracy [Drummond] and Frederic March [Brady]; a 1965 video version starred Melvyn Douglas and Paul Muni, both of whom had played their parts on Broadway. In the mid-eighties came a version starring Jason Robards and Kirk Douglas; and the 90s gave us Jack Lemmon vs. George C. Scott.) For indeed, it is more visceral on film. Somehow courtroom dramas usually are, maybe because the smallest minutiae of behavior, from the lowly juror to the orating attorney to the overseeing judge, can be captured and edited into stark relief, ramping up the tension of verbal battles. Maybe also because when issues, in the sense of news and social upheaval are concerned, the screen does seem to be the natural medium.
Because as the one and only previous Broadway revival, under the direction of John Tillinger, demonstrated a decade ago (that one featuring George Scott migrating to the role of Drummond, and Charles Durning as Brady) Inherit the Wind can indeed be surprisingly mild onstage, despite the presence of stars. The courtroom argument isn't weighted equally on both sides—free thinking must prevail eventually, so suspense has to be pulled out of other elements. If the Southern town setting seems populated by a bunch of rubes just waiting around for enlightenment—as opposed to diehard conservatives who believe with every fiber of their being that they're the ones already enlightened—Drummond has no force to work against.
Thus for my money—and clearly that of the audience, who seemed to breathe with the play—Mr. Hughes has played his cards exactly right: the play has a huge cast, and he has seen to it that even the bit players are fully dimensional: the citizens of this southern town are none of them clichˇ rednecks—they're genuine rednecks, a few of them, and the others are genuine concerned human beings with genuinely felt passions.
This plus the ambience of set and the use of folk music (a quartet singing hymns and novelty numbers accompanied by guitar) gives Inherit the Wind a palpable atmosphere of (mostly) united community, their resolve even further solidified by the perorations of Brian Dennehy's Brady; so that when Drummond finally enters—in the person of Christopher Plummer—he truly is a stranger in a strange land.
And in this manner is created the illusion that perhaps we don't know the outcome of the trial, or at the very least, that things will look bad for Drummond and his client before they get better, so that at the very least we're worried about what Drummond is going to do about it as all reasonable legal strategies are blocked. This is not a remotely easy illusion to pull off. And it's key to making Inherit the Wind crackle.
It certainly doesn't hurt that the leads are every bit as powerful as you hope they'd be, Plummer tempering Dummond's irascibility with a deceptively soft-spoken delivery; and Dennehy giving Brady's dogmatism a core of empathetic humanism that is both noble and sad. And as the "ringmaster" licensed to offer editorial comment—a Greek chorus in disguise as a journalist—there's the impishly irreverent Denis O'Hare in the role of E.Y. Hornbeck (like the titans he observes, likewise a name-change stand-in for H.L. Mencken).
This added to the times in which we live, where it seems, if we're lucky, scientific reason and knowledge are standing firm against the conservative forces of willful ignorance after a long, frustrating mainstream suppression, makes Inherit the Wind a bit hotter than it has been in a while—not that its central issue ever really goes underground, but now more than ever, perhaps, the parallels are a little more visceral for the general public, just because it's in the zeitgeist.
All of which I frame in the context of Mr. Brantley's Times review for but one reason: I just the other day heard someone say the production had gotten bad reviews. Plural. Discovering that the speaker had really only read the Times, I decided the check out some others. Sure enough, a preponderance of raves. The speaker had defaulted to the Times's power, much the way some conservative factions have wanted to believe the dubiously elected Commander-in-Chief speaks for all.
And as Inherit the Wind tells us, you have to know the facts before you can make a declaration...