The courtroom drama is a celebrated staple of arresting theater, and “Inherit the Wind,” playing through Sunday, June 9, at Bristol Riverside Theater, is one of the five greatest examples of such scripts the 20th century gave us. (If curious, the other four are “A Few Good Men,” “The Crucible,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial.”) In 1955 Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee wrote this account of the 1925 Scopes trial, in which a high school teacher stood accused of violating a Tennessee state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution.
The play was crafted as a response to McCarthyism; with the rise and propagation of American Christian fundamentalism over the last 30 years, and a persistent attack on the idea of evolution as a ratified and teachable concept, “Inherit the Wind” has transformed from an allegory into a straight-up cautionary tale and tinder for conversation as the issues of the Scopes trial, now almost 90 years in the past, are still bandied about.
BRT’s production, directed by founding director Susan D. Atkinson, makes it clear, by filling out the play’s sprawling cast with local actors and community members, that the debate at the heart of this play is a community issue. It is a noble idea, and I understand the concept behind it; at moments it is quite effective, and at times it detracts significantly from the story’s goals.
But let’s start with the positive. Worth the price of admission are the performances of Keith Baker and Michael McCarty as lifelong friends and fierce adversaries on conflicting sides of the trial — Baker as defense attorney Henry Drumond, and McCarty as the faithful-to-a-fault Matthew Harrison Brady.
Baker is perhaps the strongest weapon in BRT’s arsenal; whatever his role or position in a production, he always delivers a consistent, versatile, and strong display of talent and dedication, and he’s arresting and thoroughly watchable here. I’m always excited to see the work he turns in, and he is the driving engine of this play. When BRT crafts a production in which the artistry as a whole matches Baker’s energy (and I could list a half dozen of these off the top of my head), it creates some of the very best theater in the area.
And with that in mind, I dearly wished for “Inherit the Wind” to rise to those heights. But the choice to populate the stage with community actors hurts the sanctity of the world Atkinson strives to create. And it hurts me to say this — you are not going to meet a bigger fan of passionate and hardworking community theater storytellers than me. But the dichotomy between the differing skill levels of professional and community actors gives the impression that we’re witnessing two productions that seem to violently cascade together. During dramatic courtroom scenes, the full cast has been directed to create commotions reacting to stultifying southern heat via stage whispers and fan-waving, and it feels as if there’s a singular lack of control.
It gives the impression that Harold Hill is about to wander in and tell us there’s trouble right here in River City, and that’s just not the story this play sets out to tell. The idea of integrating the community into “Inherit the Wind” was an intriguing one, but it’s a failed experiment; the integration isn’t complete. That said, community actor Matt Lydon is pretty terrific in his turn as the mayor.
With the community element removed from consideration, Atkinson’s direction is clear, and members of the cast are downright stellar; Erik Daughterman is astoundingly complex as a student called in to testify against his teacher. The performances at the core of “Inherit the Wind” are universally strong and fully embrace the message at the heart of the show: that the rampant ideology — untempered by reason and consideration of the facts of the world around us — leads to evil. This script handles the concept deftly and brilliantly, and it’s potent enough that each and every one of us should find a young person and share a production of “Inherit the Win”d with them, with a hearty conversation afterwards.
On that front, BRT’s “Inherit the Wind” is still quite potent, and I have to give Atkinson and her theater points for trying. Even when a production, or elements of a production, at BRT fails to hit its marks, it does so in interesting ways that stay true to the heart of the theater’s mission. Sometimes the work at BRT doesn’t succeed — but it is never, ever boring.
Inherit the Wind, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol. Through Sunday, June 9. $35 to $45. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.