The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The old adage kept ricocheting around in my head as I watched Studio Connections' production of Inherit the Wind. In the context of the 56-year-old show, which is still amazingly relevant today, the tendency for folks to hold on tenaciously to old ways—even when those ways should be surrendered—is not a happy thought. In fact, it's downright dangerous.
Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee penned this drama as a rebuttal of the extremism of the Red Scare of the 1950s, according to program notes attributed to Mrs. Robert E. Lee in 2009. She writes, "They wrote Inherit as a response to McCarthyism, but they also saw the play as a very personal testament to their faith in the compatibility of faith and reason."
The playwrights use the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 as the vehicle to illustrate their criticism. That very real event took place in Tennessee, where there was a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution or "any theory that denies the story of Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and teach(es) instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals." But the playwrights insisted that their play really was about the importance of the right to think for oneself.
Director Robert Encila has weighted his production with a definite bias in favor of the strength of proven scientific research over the uninformed, closed-minded religious faithful who fearfully refuse to see beyond a fundamentalist faith. Indeed, by utilizing a story which tackles the immensely controversial subject of what should be taught in public schools, the mere right to think for oneself gets overwhelmed by what has become that most gnarly of issues: the separation of church and state. This makes this piece, and Encila's interpretation of it, sublimely relevant to contemporary controversy.
The playwrights were also very clear that they had no intention of presenting a factual, historical account of the famous Scopes trial, although the similarities are obvious. The historic trial featured great orator and failed presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan arguing for the state, against the eloquent defense attorney Clarence Darrow, who defended a teacher who volunteered to represent the interests of the American Civil Liberties Union, which funded the teacher's defense.
In Inherit the Wind, Bryan becomes Matthew Harrison Brady (Jerry Wozniak), and Darrow becomes Henry Drummond (Doug Mitchell). Here, the defendant, Bertram Cates (Michael Gifford), is a local science teacher who introduced Charles Darwin's evolution science into his classroom lessons, much to the horrified distress of his fundamentalist fellow citizens.
Studio Connections' da Vinci Players troupe offers a well-told story. Amateurish—in the very best sense of that word—most of the actors are not trained professionals, but offer a sincere and spirited effort to relate a story which they obviously feel needs to be told, through a medium whose power they respect.
Even though the play itself is rather even-handed in its approach, here, from the beginning, there is a sense that the townspeople who hold tight to their literalist embrace of the Bible are close-minded and out-of-touch folks who will act in extreme and even violent ways to maintain their unexamined faith. Wozniak's Brady initially offers a down-to-earth charm, although we see pretty quickly that he is an opportunist more than a sincere defender of the faith. Confident that he will seal the deal against the defendant, he is self-righteous in a way that seems to come all too easily for those who are arrogant in their faith, rather than humbled by it. But as the trial progresses, and Drummond shows Brady to be less of an authority on the Bible than he thinks he is, Brady becomes almost buffoonish. How much more effective it would be if we witnessed an intelligent, thoughtful man confronting a serious—and public—crisis of faith, rather than a blowhard who is flustered and embarrassed to death?
Encila and his cast draw the line between the good and the bad pretty cleanly, leaving little room for nuance or middle ground. It's a strong point of view, one which clearly points out the dangers of trying to insert matters of religious certitude into a diverse society—especially a society in which the law ensures the freedom of religious choice, and absolutely excludes rule by a specific religious doctrine.
Some rather clunky aspects of the production prevent the show from feeling polished. The idea behind the staging of the opening is intriguing, but it feels awkward and gets the show off to a rather ponderous start. The costumes are conspicuously without design, and the sound design does not show the most creative of approaches, chiefly utilizing songs directly lifted from T-Bone Burnett's soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou?
However, Adam Furtado and Mary Jane Lyon have designed an attractive and workable set which is well-lit by Christopher Kent. Seventh-grader Andrew Ewen's witness for the prosecution is wonderfully un-self-conscious, and Mitchell (who is a professional actor) is a very credible Drummond, skilled as a lawyer, aware of what he is up against and respectful of Brady, with whom he has had a long friendship.
But the real star of the evening is the play itself. It thoughtfully probes the dangers of self-righteousness and the failure to apply reason and knowledge in protecting that most sacred of American values, personal freedom. Its message is relevant and timely, and this production delivers its drama quite effectively.