Reviewed by Judy Richter
Even though "Inherit the Wind" by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee is based on the notorious Scopes "monkey" trial in 1925 in Dayton, Tenn., it raises an issue that has figured prominently in today's news. The issue in the Scopes trial was the teaching of Darwinism rather than creationism in a high school biology class. Today the issue is virtually the same, just with different words: evolution vs. intelligent design.
Ironically, in writing the play for its premiere 50 years ago, Lawrence and Lee intended to fight hysterical anti-communism, as personified by Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, according to dramaturg Johnny Miller's informative program notes for the San Jose Stage Company production. Today we might substitute the words hysterical anti-terrorism, or we might see strong parallels with current efforts to tear down the wall between church and state or to inflict one's own moral code on others.
The playwrights take dramatic liberty with historical fact, fictionalizing the story and changing names, but the outline remains the same. In history, teacher John T. Scopes was arrested for breaking a state law against teaching evolution. The prosecution was represented by William Jennings Bryan, a great orator and three-time presidential candidate. The defense was represented by Clarence Darrow, a well known criminal defense attorney.
In the play, Scopes becomes Bertram Cates (Bill Olson), Bryan becomes Matthew Harrison Brady (Kevin Blackton), and Darrow becomes Henry Drummond (Randall King). H.L. Mencken, the acerbic Baltimore Sun columnist who was among the hordes of reporters covering the trial, becomes E.K. Hornbeck (Michael Craig Storm).
Despite the inherent timeliness of the play, this SJSC production, as directed by James Reese, doesn't work well. The acting is uneven. Hence, characters don't seem to converse with each other so much as to give speeches, giving the production an episodic, stop-start quality. Reese stages the climactic trial scene with minor characters seated in the aisles and the front row as spectators, but their loud comments, especially the women's shrill reactions, are distracting.
With his resonant voice, excellent diction and commanding stage presence, Blackton is outstanding as prosecuting attorney Brady. Alison Lustbader is appropriately solicitous as his loyal wife, Mrs. Brady. However, King is too laid back, too aw shucks, as defense attorney Drummond, and Storm a bit too cocky and full of himself as columnist Hornbeck. Olson does well as Cates, the teacher, even though it's a surprisingly minor role. Chloł┤ Bronzan is too one-dimensional as Rachel Brown, a young woman who's torn between her love for Cates and her belief in the teachings of her father, the Rev. Jeremiah Brown (Paul Santiago, who also plays the Judge), a fiery, autocratic, fundamentalist minister who seems to rule the town.
The simple set is by Richard C. Ortenblad, the '20s costumes by Eileen M. Barnes, the lighting by Michael Walsh and the sound by Jamie D. Mann.
It's unfortunate that this production has so many shortcomings when the subject matter is so timely.