BLOWN OFF COURSE

The issues described in Inherit the Wind, now at the Arvada Center, continue to lurk in the news. There are still religious zealots all over America who would like to censor and control those who disagree with them about a wide variety of issues--including the teaching of evolution in the schools. So it's not the subject of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's 1955 play that's dated. It's the writing.

The famous "Monkey Trial" of 1925 on which the play is based brought together two giants of American law--William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution and Clarence Darrow for the defense--to try one John Thomas Scopes for teaching Darwin in his high school science class. The clash of the titans made news all over the world, and eventually, the test of faith versus science ended in victory for science.

Over the years, creationist arguments based on the biblical book of Genesis have become more sophisticated, if no more convincing to academics. So the simplistic vilification of the fundamentalists in Inherit the Wind seems all the more smug. The play is just so Fifties, so pat. The only character that's more than two-dimensional is defense attorney Henry Drummond (a knockoff of Darrow); everyone else is a stereotypical hero, villain or wuss.

The Arvada Center production tries hard to breathe life into the material; the actors are all very accomplished and the lighting design is polished and expressive. But the stylized set, with its two-level stage and flat building frames--meant to suggest a small-town square--ultimately underscores just how flat the storytelling really is. As each new scene opens, there is a momentary freeze of light and action before the lights change and the action begins; again, a neat device that has the ironic effect of reinforcing the feeling of a story stuck in time.

And though well-crafted, the acting here can't do much to combat the stereotypes. Consequently, it comes across as rather cold, what warmth there is confined to the zeal of David Richards's Brady (the knockoff of Bryan), the homespun humor of Richard Jury's Drummond and the gentle spirit of Terri Enders-Miller as Rachel, girlfriend to the schoolteacher defendant.

John Ashton takes on the conventional intellectual role, the cynical reporter-critic E.K. Hornbeck, with sarcastic humor and languid arrogance. But as written, the character Hornbeck is a cardboard cutout: a simple-minded Newspaperman With Attitude.

So while the ideas here may be sound enough--all very moral about standing up to injustice and so on--the expression is not so moral. We know exactly what we are supposed to think at every moment and who we are supposed to despise. Yes, Drummond has a little speech at the end of the play attacking Hornbeck's callousness and defending Brady as a man of principle who looked for God too high up and too far away. But the speech only serves to showcase Drummond's humanity; nothing else in the play helps the viewer empathize with Brady's lost soul.

After seeing a film like Dead Man Walking, which is so scrupulous in trusting its audience to think through the moral issues and come to its own conclusions, Inherit the Wind feels like an insult to a viewer's intelligence. A telling moment comes, for instance, when Brady begins to lose all confidence and speeds toward a nervous breakdown and imminent death; he confides to his wife that everyone is laughing at him, and she tries to comfort him, calling him "Baby." The night I saw the show, even the old ladies in the audience laughed in derision at that one.

 
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