Courtroom drama remains timely and engrossing

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By Doug Deuchler

Blogger

Inherit the Wind is a fictionalized drama based on what was perhaps the best-known jury trial of the 20th century — the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial." A Tennessee high school teacher, John T. Scopes (1900-1970), was convicted of teaching Charles Darwin's theory of evolution to his biology classes.

Opening this past weekend in Austin Gardens, Oak Park Festival Theatre's solid production of this mid-century classic proves that it's an absorbing work whose timely theme still resonates with contemporary audiences. We know the historical outcome, yet this is spell-binding theater.

The acting is first rate in this superbly staged production. Director Steve Pickering maintains gripping tension throughout.

The 1955 play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee was written as a response to repression of intellectual freedom during the anti-Communist investigations — the "witch hunt" we now call "McCarthyism."

Agnostic, grandstanding Chicago attorney Henry Drummond, based upon Hyde Parker Clarence Darrow (1857-1938), who had just defended "thrill killers" Leopold and Loeb, is played with wit and warmth by Jack Hickey (who is also artistic director for Festival Theatre). Drummond is laid-back and patient, generally keeping his cool. When he gets off the train wearing white spats and a broad smile, he immediately snags our sympathy.

Drummond's formidable adversary, self-righteous prosecuting attorney Matthew Harrison Brady, played by Aaron Christensen, is based on politician William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), who was defeated three times as a presidential candidate. Bombastic Brady, ever glad-handing and championing a literal interpretation of the Bible, was once a close friend of Drummond. But their old friendship grows painfully strained during the trial.

 Hickey and Christensen are well-matched and dynamic. It's thrilling as the rival lawyers trade punches in the boxing ring of the trial. But Brady here seems a somewhat younger man than he's often portrayed, nor does he appear to be in particularly failing health. In reality Darrow and Bryan were contemporaries, both in their mid-60s, with the latter dying shortly after the verdict was delivered.

The cynical northern reporter, E.K. Hornbeck, usually believed to be modeled on H. L. Mencken, is played by Kimberly Logan. This elitist character often seems more narrow-minded and biased than the bumpkins she criticizes. It was a wise choice to cast this role as a woman, adding a dimension of the new feminist thinking of the period. The way Logan is costumed reminds me of outspoken reporter Roz Russell in the screwball newspaper comedy His Girl Friday.

The jury is stacked and the judge sides with the bigots. There is never much doubt about the trial's eventual outcome but the event provides the opportunity to question the constitutionality of the law.

The Scopes trial of 1925 was the first to be broadcast over the radio. It became a worldwide sensation.

The hoopla and media frenzy was also a means to stimulate economic opportunities for the backwater locale. The one-dimensional locals seem more intent on renting rooms and selling Bibles, lemonade, and Eskimo Pies to the hordes of strangers swarming into town than they are in confronting their own spiritual values.

Shannon Parr is a hell-fire and brimstone preacher who stirs up the townspeople with his seething sermons. His daughter, played by Emily Thomas, is the fiancee of the young science teacher (Michael Hahalyak) who defied the law to teach his students about Darwin. The young woman is torn between love and loyalty to her boyfriend, the defendant, and her fundamentalist father.

A teenage boy from the controversial science class is played by Kait Mikitin. Several male characters, in fact, are inexplicably played by females.

Director Pickering blurs the distance between "us" and "them" by having townspeople planted among the audience, hollering out their angry comments and disapproval during the second act courtroom sequence.

The wooden frame courthouse set, which is hung with a large 48-star American flag, was designed by Aimea Hanyzewski. The stage manager is Leigh Barrett.

In terms of the period, the costumes are blurry and inaccurate.

The Scopes trial was 87 years ago and the McCarthy "red scare" era of anti-intellectualism was 60 years ago. Yet whether we're talking about textbooks or stem cell research, American society is still challenged by the core conflicts depicted in this striking, pertinent drama. The creationism vs. evolution debate is almost as topical in some sectors of our nation as it was in the mid-1920s, while the religious right issues continue to be prominent in the political arena.

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