‘Inherit The Wind,” based on the Scopes monkey trial of 1925, has a huge cast (I counted 44 in the program, including four that comprise a gospel quartet). Imagine that, you Coast-of-Utopians! It is heartening to see big-time Broadway producers willing and eager to pay so many salaries. As is the custom in a major revival of this fine play written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, two formidable actors with name recognition have been paired as the courtroom duelists: Christopher Plummer, as the unwelcome defense lawyer, Henry Drummond, and Brian Dennehy, as the prosecuting lawyer, Matthew Harrison Brady.
For a few minutes before the plot begins its expectedly confrontational course, we observe Santo Loquasto’s functional two-level courtroom setting. There are also four tiered rows of bargain-priced stage seating. We have noticed of late that stage seating is becoming de rigueur. A large American flag dominates the rear of the setting. Before the play begins, four gospel singers perform a medley of hymns including “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Beulah Land,” “Down By the River Side,” but most amusing is an audience-rousing clap-a-long to a new song, “You Can’t Make a Monkey of Me,” written for this occasion by David Van Tieghem.
The populace of a small Southern town enters through a portal at center stage and gathers down stage with the interior of the courthouse in the background. As the stage fills with faith-filled townsfolk, our attention is drawn to vendors amidst placards that expound “Down With Darwin” and “Read Your Bible.” My favorite: “My Family Tree Didn’t Bear Coconuts.” But it is the courtroom where a showdown will raise age-old issues regarding minority opinions.
The play, inspired by the actual confrontation between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, originally opened in 1955 in the wake of the McCarthy era. The combative stars were Paul Muni and Ed Begley. In 1995, the National Actors Theater presented a production starring an ailing George C. Scott and a bellowing Charles Durning. It wasn’t an ideal production but it resonated in that not-so-long ago time when the Moral Majority/Family Values advocates were beginning to make a lot of noise. Adding to that was the law passed during that time by the State of Alabama that requires all science textbooks to carry an insertion stating that the study of evolution is not necessarily based on fact. So here we are in 2007 still a-fussin’ and a-feudin’ over whether the religious beliefs and teachings in regard to the origins of life of one particular religious group should be mandatory in the curriculum of science classes attended by students of many races and different cultures.
Despite its affecting testimony-charged dialogue (much taken directly from the Scopes trial transcript) “Inherit The Wind” responds best to exciting and energizing acting. Sorry to say, you won’t find much of that in this courtroom. An idiosyncratic richness of character is an inherent quality in both the principal provincial Bible-belters and their more sophisticated Darwinian visitors. For some reason this famous trial play, under Doug Hughes’ relaxed direction, gives the impression of a heated town meeting. The dramatic peaks are barely noticeable in this respectable but unexciting production.
Anyone familiar with “Inherit The Wind” knows its potential to move an audience emotionally. Bring to it two dynamic opposing forces and you have the making of stimulating debate. Plummer’s long and distinguished career has been consistently worthy of accolades and awards. His co-starring stage appearances with such luminaries as Judith Anderson, Eva Le Gallienne, Katherine Cornell, and Julie Harris are legendary. Affecting a wickedly winning half-smile on his face, Plummer asserts a coolly calculated charm that may be insinuating but his performance is mainly bemusedly distant, however disciplined.
Dennehy, who won the Tony for the 50th anniversary production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” may have lost the kind of pot-belly that traditionally goes with the role. But his still formidable girth is hardly the core of the self-righteous Brady, who demonstrates how one can be driven solely by a moral compass. At times, Dennehy leaves no doubt that he is the embodiment of this sweaty, dangerously over-zealous “hero of the hinterlands.” But, as the staunch opponent of what he calls “evilution,” and “the evilutionist,” Dennehy simply conforms to the basic demands of the role.
Apparently Denis O’Hare can be counted on to put a humorous spin of his own on any character he plays, and he is appropriately obnoxious as the mocking and cynical reporter from Baltimore. His goading presence and jittery behavior, however, add considerable humor to the generally tension-deficient proceedings. Benjamin Walker makes a good impression as the schoolteacher on trial for vocalizing Darwin’s locally illegal doctrine. Maggie Lacey registers similarly as his misguided wimp of a girlfriend. The entire supporting cast, including Byron Jennings, as the hell-fire and brimstone Reverend Jeremia Brown, and Beth Fowler, as Mrs. Brady, appear resigned to their assignments. “Inherit The Wind” is that rare kind of full-blown stage spectacle designed to excite the mind. The verdict: Looking back, it was the gospel quartet that delivered the most. HH
“Inherit the Wind,”, Lyceum Theater, 149 West 45th Street. $26.95 to $96.25. 212-239-6200.