Tonight at the Mary Miller Theater: Inherit the Wind, like you've never seen it before

Inherit the Wind, the fictionalized account of the Scopes Monkey Trial by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, might just be the greatest courtroom drama ever written, and its main theme -- whether or not Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution should be taught in a public school -- is as relevant as it was in 1955 when it was penned, or for that matter, 1925, when the famous intellectual point-counterpoint between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan first unfolded in a courtroom in Dayton, Tennessee. But a huge part of what made the story work was its sheer atmosphere: the revival-meeting hoopla, the heat and loosened collars, the hollering from the courtroom gallery.

That will all be an integral part of a new production of Inherit the Wind by the Theater Company of Lafayette, which opens tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the period-perfect Mary Miller Theater, 300 East Simpson Street, Lafayette. Director Ian Gerber's longtime vision for the play will blossom in the most totally immersive way, from the moment play-goers step out of their cars and walk into the building. "The first time I came to the Mary Miller Theater, which is a converted church dating back to the 1800s, it was a warm, sticky night," explains Gerber. The theater didn't have air-conditioning yet, just ceiling fans. I looked around at the old wooden paneling, the stained glass windows and people fanning themselves with their programs, and I said to the friends I was with, 'Wouldn't this be a great place to put on Inherit the Wind?'"

"It was a dream of his for several years, and he just took it up from there," notes TCL spokesman Don Fried. "The Mary Miller is a small theater -- there are only eighty seats -- and the idea of having cast members in the audience seemed very plausible. The building on the outside really looks like that period, and as the audience members drive up and walk in, there will be costumed kids playing ball, and the mayor of town will be greeting them, and there will be other actors all talking in character and selling hotdogs and bibles. It will be as if you are really in Hillsboro, Tennessee, to see the trial. It really works."

And, Fried adds, it's a concept that came with some challenges: "When you direct a play with three actors, and they're all good, experienced actors, you let them do what they want, and then you tweak it a little. With this, we had 29 actors from age ten to age 70-plus, and they all have different levels of experience, from this being the first thing they've ever done to someone who's been acting for forty years. You need to use a much stronger hand with this kind of cast -- a crowd scene of 24 people needs to be choreographed like a grand ballet." Plus, who knows what will happen when the audience is allowed on stage during the intermission to mingle with the characters? Only one way to find out: See Inherit the Wind on Friday and Saturday evenings through May 21; two 2 p.m. matinees are scheduled for May 1 and 15. Admission is $10 to $15; visit the website or call 720-209-2154 to reserve seats in advance. And don't forget to wear your straw boater!

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