Inherit the Wind
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
April 17, 2007
The rousing new Broadway revival of Inherit the Wind delivers on all fronts. Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's fictionalized re-telling of the historic Scopes Monkey trial is the perfect offering right now for an America increasingly polarized by secular and religious beliefs. Directed with sober and precise showmanship by Doug Hughes and led by a pair of dynamite performances from Broadway heavyweights Brian Dennehy and Christopher Plummer, Inherit the Wind reminds us that, even though there's enough room for everyone's viewpoint, U.S. citizens must never take free speech or their "right" to think for granted.
Set in a small Southern town during the 1920s, Inherit the Wind follows the trial of Bert Cates (based on the real John Scopes), a grade school teacher imprisoned for breaking a state law forbidding the teaching of any theory contrary to the biblical conception of divine creation. It seems Bert has the town up at arms for introducing Charles Darwin's theory of evolution to his young charges. The case draws national attention when two high profile attorneys take it on: for the prosecution, three-time Presidential candidate Matthew Harrison Brady (based on William Jennings Bryan); and for the defense, liberal crusader Henry Drummond (based on Clarence Darrow). Brady is popular, an eloquent speaker, and has the support of the town. Drummond is looked upon as a dangerous libertarian interloper, but he's got smarts and savvy. We find out later that both men used to be friends on the same side of the political and ideological fence, adding fuel to the flames of the ensuing media circus.
Hughes really punches up the play's populist humanism before it even begins by allowing nearly 70 paid audience members to sit in Santo Loquasto's exquisite courtroom set. It's an ingenious choice that increases Inherit the Wind's already considerable dramatic tension. With the lawyers truly playing to "the people," what will happen? Who will the spectators side with? It's anybody's guess, but viewers seated out in the theatre proper will have a great time scanning the faces of their on-stage cohorts for any such sign.
Lawrence and Lee's tight, meaty script is a textbook crowd-pleaser that hits all of the hot buttons on both sides of the science vs. religion debate. The courthouse is draped with creationist banners declaring "GOD IS WATCHING," and "READ YOUR BIBLE," while the judge dubiously remarks that "the right to think is not on trial here." Drummond, knowing full well that it is, isn't having any of that. "Each man is a free agent," he retorts on behalf of humanity's God-given ability to exercise free will. But, the town's blind faith in the Good Book gets most of Drummond's expert witnesses banned from the courtroom because their testimony "isn't relevant." In a daring, last-ditch attempt to gain a foothold with the jury, Drummond unexpectedly calls Brady to the stand as a witness for the defense.
Which is Inherit the Wind's cue to set off the thespian fireworks. Of course, there are plenty before then, but, as played by Dennehy and Plummer, Brady and Drummond's courtroom clash might qualify as the juiciest onstage confrontation of the year. Not previously known for either his warmth or gentility, the commanding Dennehy surprisingly shows both qualities in abundance here, and they suit him well. He triumphs in a role that could plausibly slide into stunt miscasting. And, Plummer: well, all I can say about him is "Wow!" The weighty experience he brings to the stage informs his every economical but heavily-endowed movement. Whether he's arguing for free speech, snapping his suspenders in momentary triumph, or complaining that "One day I'm gonna get me an easy case," he lets the audience know that Inherit the Wind is in the confident hands of a master.
Also augmenting both sides of the play's argument are Byron Jennings as the town's fire-and-brimstone reverend, and Denis O'Hare as the cynical big-city newspaperman, E.K. Hornbeck (based on H.L. Mencken). Both men add to their collectively distinguished gallery of memorable performances here.
Inherit the Wind works as both a cautionary tale and grand entertainment. Its message is still as necessary as ever, and few productions can deliver such headiness as smoothly and craftily as this one. Watch the masters at work, and enjoy the civics lesson.