Evolution's Merry-Go-Round

Modern Muse forcefully revisits the suddenly timely Inherit the Wind.

In 1955, when Inherit the Wind was written, religious attacks on evolution seemed safely in America's past, and authors Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee weren't so much re-arguing the topic as using it as a metaphor for the stifling of thought in the McCarthy era. It's astonishing to realize that since then the anti-Darwinists have regrouped full force, distorting public discussion of science, dominating some school boards, intimidating teachers, influencing textbooks and becoming so powerful that the sober-sided New York Times recently carried a series of front-page articles on whether faith and the belief in evolution could co-exist. According to a poll last fall, more than half of all Americans do not believe that human beings developed from earlier species; 54 percent think that creationism and intelligent design should be taught in American schools alongside evolution.

With know-nothingism threatening to swamp the country and sabotage our primacy in science and medicine, Inherit the Wind looks more and more timely. It's an excellent choice for Modern Muse, and the company's production manages to be both thought-provoking and entertaining.

The play is a fictionalized account of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, when John Scopes, a young teacher, was put on trial for teaching evolution -- a practice forbidden in publicly funded high schools and universities by Tennessee's newly passed Butler Act. Scopes had been recruited to challenge the act by the American Civil Liberties Union. Money for his defense was put up by the Baltimore Sun, which sent its most famous reporter, H.L. Mencken, to cover the proceedings. In the courtroom, titans clashed as famed defense lawyer Clarence Darrow faced three-time presidential contender William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution.

Louis Schaefer, Jim Zeiger and William Denis in 
Inherit the Wind.
Louis Schaefer, Jim Zeiger and William Denis in Inherit the Wind.

Details

Presented by Modern Muse Theatre Company through September 18, 303- 780-7836, www.modernmusetheatre.com
Bug Theatre, 3654 Navajo Street

Lawrence and Lee fictionalized the trial and changed the names of the protagonists: Clarence Darrow becomes Henry Drummond; Bryan is Matthew Harrison Brady, and Mencken is called E.K. Hornbeck. They also took liberties with the facts. Their young teacher, Bert Cates, has not entered the suit voluntarily, but was forcibly removed from his classroom and jailed. He is in love with Rachel Brown, daughter of the town's fire-and-brimstone preacher -- both invented characters. The people of Dayton, though fundamentalist Christians, were civil to all sides during the trial (it was a local businessman interested in putting the town on the map who originally recruited Scopes and invited in the ACLU), while those in the fictional town of Hillsboro are vicious and small-minded. The preacher -- in a terrific performance by Paul Page -- embodies all the powerful and irrational malevolence of a certain strain of Christian belief. (Think Pat Robertson calling for the assassination of Hugo Chavez; think Jerry Falwell blaming abortion doctors, feminists, gay people and the ACLU for September 11.)

The script has weaknesses -- the ending, in particular, seems scattered and sentimental -- and when Preacher Brown hurls his sobbing daughter to the ground, it feels like pure Victoriana refracted through a 1950s lens. Though the authors have tried to give him some depth, Brady often comes off as a buffoon, particularly when he collapses at the end of the trial and is carried offstage still babbling the words of the closing argument he has not been permitted to deliver, and mixing them with fragments of stump speeches from his failed presidential campaigns. Word comes that he has died (the real Bryan died a few days after the trial) and, as if to atone, the authors have Drummond -- who had no compunction about eviscerating Brady in the courtroom -- proclaiming his rival a great man and attacking E.K. Hornbeck for his professional reporter's cynicism.

But despite these flaws, the play remains an exhilarating canter through Americana and a trenchant examination of some of the beliefs and contradictions at the nation's moral core. It's wonderful to hear the voices of these larger-than-life historical figures in the sections taken from the transcript of the trial itself, and to ponder both how things change and how history insists on repeating itself. Bryan may have been a literalist in his interpretation of the Bible but, as a passionate supporter of farmers, consumers and working people, and a proponent of women's suffrage, he was hardly a direct precursor to today's right-wing Christians.

From its first moments -- which show a sexily body-stockinged Adam and Eve embracing on one side of the stage while an apelike hominid gazes at them from the other -- Stephen J. Lavezza's production is riveting. In a pair of exciting performances, William Denis's Drummond and Louis Schaefer's Brady go at each other like a couple of anguished, aging bulls, both inflicting and receiving injury. Kelly Burke is an appealing Rachel, and Josh Hartwell a quietly dignified Cates -- though I do wish he'd shown a little more love and enthusiasm when Rachel asked him to leave town with her. Matt Sheahan displays Hornbeck's wiry intelligence to perfection, and Paul Page's performance as the sermonizing preacher stops the show. There's strength in all the smaller roles, too, with notable performances from Patty Mintz Figel, Theresa Reid, Max Posner and the luminous Denise Perry-Olson. A terrific selection of religious music compiled by IAEden Hovorka accompanies the action.

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