CREATIONISM VS. EVOLUTION; RELEVANCE VS. TIMELESSNESS
Dubbed “The Trial of the Century” (with rhetorical apologies to O.J.), the actual 1925 trial that inspired Inherit the Wind marks a milestone in the American legal system: The first time science vs. religion found its way to the public courthouse. The Scopes trial (named after defendant John Scopes, who taught Darwinism in his small-town classroom) pitted the revolutionaries of scientific development against religious fundamentalists, who had the law on their side.
Scopes was represented by acclaimed defense attorney Clarence Darrow. Prosecuting was three-time Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. The nation closely followed these legal celebrities whose arguments back then are painfully similar to the ones that remain unresolvable today.
Playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee draw heavily from the original trial, basing defense attorney Henry Drummond (veteran stage actor Robert Foxworth) and prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady (Adrian Sparks) strongly on Darrow and Bryan, respectively. Even the strategies employed by Drummond are constructed upon what happened in Dayton, Tennessee.
The background to the story, however, is very much fiction. Lawrence and Lee freely admit that the 1955 play was created for drama, not history. The reality is that Scopes was in cahoots with the ACLU from the moment he started teaching evolution so that the religious law could be tested in court, and Dayton denizens wanted the trial held there to boost the local economy, not to vilify Scopes. Lawrence and Lee successfully create tension with their alterations and resulting script, as much of the play’s drama comes from the fact that the town was solidly in support of the evangelistic Brady and was all-but-set to hang defendant Bertram Cates (Dan Amboyer) for daring to teach evolution in their conservative rural school.
The problem with Inherit the Wind is not director Adrian Noble, who guides his cast with gusto, but the play itself. Foxworth nails Drummond’s snide intellectualism, Sparks is superb as the blustering Brady, especially at the times when his arguments run thin, and the ensemble acting is more than adequate. The production is astoundingly professional and produced with panache, yet the play comes off as sensationalistic and mildly thought-provoking.
This is due, in part, to Lawrence and Lee’s purposeful attempt to create a timelessness in a context that just feels dated. The setting, for instance, is listed as “A small town, summer, not too long ago.” In 1950, it might indeed have felt that way, but in 2012 it very much feels like a long time ago. References are made to the passage of the suffrage amendment and Brady having run for office in 1908, and the perfect period costuming by Deirdre Clancy may carry us well to this 1920’s small southern town, but the setting is neither far enough behind us nor close enough for us to relate, even as the creationism debate remains in the news. After ten years of CourtTV, excitement about a radio microphone being present in the courtroom feels more like comic relief than drama. Court proceedings, which might have been a fresher idea in 1950, have been the weekly locales of Law & Order, LA Law, and many other television programs and movies since. The religion story is indeed engaging, but no more than most weeks’ episodes of Harry’s Law to cause a wave of excitement about this script, which verges on the melodramatic.
The storyline reminds us of the meager progress we’ve made 90 years later in resolving the conflicts between religion and science. There is much to appreciate about the production and its wonderful performances. But the script, while interesting, simply doesn’t achieve its desired resonance. As for timelessness, perhaps Arthur Miller was wiser to set his courtroom drama The Crucible in puritan Salem, as the ageless theme of a man’s right to think reverberates with much more meaning than Inherit the Wind.
photos by Henry DiRocco
Inherit The Wind
Lowell Davies Festival Theater at The Old Globe in San Diego (Regional Theater)
scheduled to end on Sept 25, 2012
for tickets, visit http://www.theoldglobe.org/tickets/