When a high school science teacher attempts to teach Darwin’s theories of evolution in a small southern town, where the Bible is considered the gospel, he has not only committed heresy, he has broken the law. The Justice Theater Project opens its season with an immersive production of the 1955 play, Inherit the Wind. Written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, it is a fictional dramatization of the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial” that pitted famous defense attorney, Clarence Darrow, against three-time failed presidential candidate and orator, William Jennings Bryan.
Jerry Sipp competently directs this show with an eye towards audience engagement. Upon entering a large area in the Umstead Park United Church of Christ, the audience is welcomed by “the townspeople,” not merely as witnesses to some big event, but as participants in the drama that is about to unfold.
Bertram Cates has dared to challenge the religious beliefs of the town and is about to go on trial. Michael Parker plays Bertram Cates, the teacher at the center of the trial, with the right mixture of restrained frustration: he knows he has the right to think even if others lack curiosity. His girlfriend, Rachel Brown, played with a sweet, reserved innocence by Jess Barbour, is also the daughter of the local Reverend Jeremiah Brown, portrayed by an impassioned Brook North. It is only Rachel and Meeker, Bertram’s jailor, played with a charming folksiness by Randy Jordan, who side with Bertram and don’t treat him as an agent of the devil.
The arrival of Matthew Harrison Brady, famous for his knowledge and defense of Biblical literalism, is celebrated by the town. Paul Wilson effectively embodies this hearty, yet past-his-prime, bombastic prosecutor. As the lawyer for Cates, Henry Drummond, Byron Jennings delivers a polished and captivating performance. Wilson and Jennings’ lively interaction, as they fight over intellectual freedom, makes for some compelling courtroom drama.
This large ensemble wonderfully conveys the stifling July heat in the days before air-conditioning, and act as a sort of chorus for the trial proceedings. A reporter for a big city paper, E.K. Hornbeck, modeled after the prominent cultural critic of the time, H. L. Mencken, and played by Nan Stephenson, offers up considerable cynicism and caustic commentary. In a role traditionally cast as a man, Stephenson provides some of the best and most memorable descriptions of the action.
What resonates with this production are the arguments around blind faith. Allegiances can be suffocating and questioning may lead to divided loyalty, or worse, a collapse of beliefs, weighty issues that will stay with you long after the play ends.
After the show, an audience member remarked, “It’s troubling that we humans have such capacity for small thinking.” Perhaps that is why this play has an impact nearly 65 years after its debut.
The Justice Theater Project production of Inherit the Wind runs through September 29th at the Umstead Park United Church of Christ in Raleigh. For more information visit http://www.thejusticetheaterproject.org or the RDU on Stage calendar page.