Inherit the Wind

Modern Muse Theatre Company's opening production for its first full season could hardly be timelier, this being the 80th anniversary of the Scopes Monkey Trial and the 50th anniversary of the original Broadway production of Inherit the Wind, not to mention the current feverish debate over the teaching of Creationism, or its newest incarnation, "Intelligent Design," in public schools.

Given these circumstances, and the overall excellence of this production, the company is certainly making good on its commitment to "presenting powerful, passionate, and pertinent work that serves as a catalyst for dialogue and change."

From the opening scene, a beautifully rendered depiction of the parable of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden plus a parallel cameo by "the missing link," that director Stephen Lavezza has creatively prefaced to the actual script (and which fits like bookends with the ending), it is clear that this telling of the tale was going to be something special.

Photo: Louis Schaefer (Matthew Harrison Brady) and William Denis (Henry Drummond) argue over fossil evidence as Jim Zeiger (Judge) listens.
Louis Schaefer (Matthew Harrison Brady)
and William Denis (Henry Drummond)
argue over fossil evidence
as Jim Zeiger (Judge) listens
In addition to a star-studded cast, Lavezza has infused this classic courtroom drama with moving renditions of gospel tunes that capture the spirit of the townsfolk of Hillsboro, Tennessee, as they rally around nationally-renowned politician and religious orator Matthew Harrison Brady (modeled on William Jennings Bryan, the 3-time presidential nominee and famous Chautauqua orator).

Also, Lavezza's innovative use of masks turns the jury and the local church congregation into Greek choruses, adding classical underpinnings that significantly up the tragic ante.

By the time Brady arrives on stage, the incarceration of Bert Cates (a fictional stand-in for John T. Scopes, the teacher who agreed to challenge the state law), his romantic relationship with the local preacher's daughter, Rachel, and the carnival atmosphere of the trial—replete with a profusion of colorful characters out to make a quick buck hawking hot dogs, lemonade, and baked goods—have been firmly established.

The main focus of the drama, however, is in the courtroom, where Brady and Henry Drummond (a straw model for the noted defense counsel, Clarence Darrow) go at it over jury selection, admissible evidence, and The Bible versus Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species.

Like Spencer Tracy and Frederic March in the Oscar-nominated 1960 film, though not quite with the same intensity or shadings, journeymen Schaefer (Brady) and William Denis (Drummond) put on a great show—with Schaefer oozing rhetorical eloquence and Denis counter-punching with deft logic and hard facts—climaxing in Drummond putting Brady on the witness stand and landing a number of blows that remain pertinent today.

For example, when Brady responds to one of Drummond's queries by saying he "never will" read Darwin's book, Drummond asks "Then how in perdition do you have the gall to whoop up this holy war against something you don't know anything about? How can you be so cocksure that the body of scientific knowledge systematized in the writings of Charles Darwin is, in any way, irreconcilable with the spirit of the Book of Genesis?"

Paralleling the philosophical debate at the heart of the story is the personal dynamic between Cates (Josh Hartwell) and Rachel (Kelly Burke). Burke is heart-wrenching as her character is torn between the hell fire and brimstone teachings of her father, Reverend Brown (Paul Page), and her affection for Cates. Hartwell is stoic, yet affectionate, as the principled 24-year old high-school biology teacher.

Photo: Paul Page (Reverend Jeremiah Brown) calls down fire and brimstone on his daughter, Kelly Burke (Rachel)
Paul Page
(Reverend Jeremiah Brown)
calls down fire and brimstone
on his daughter,
Kelly Burke (Rachel)
Page's delivery of the Reverend's prayer meeting, punctuated by well-timed call-outs, is so extraordinarily searing, culminating in the striking of his own daughter, we find it entirely realistic that Brady, of all people, cautions him, "He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind." (Proverbs, 11:29)

Finally, the historical setting of the piece is broadened by the cynical reporter, E.K. Hornbeck (representing H. L. Mencken), played by Matt Sheahan, who hits all the right notes in bringing alive the noted journalist, social critic, and epigrammatist. The large ensemble provides a wealth of other notable performances in supporting roles.

Though the case against Scopes was, on appeal, dismissed by a technicality, the debate remains a political hot potato, as President Bush's remarks on August 1st, calling for "both sides…to be properly taught," and public reaction to his partisan statement clearly indicate.

Tellingly, in last Sunday's edition (8/21) of the Denver Post, columnist John Aloysius Farrell wondered, "…as we bicker over creation myths and evolution this summer, if science and religion may not ultimately converge."

Though "Intelligent Design" does not represent this convergence, as it denies empirical method altogether, Farrell's musing that "some theories of modern physics approximate theology" is right on the mark, and anticipates a breakthrough—in which science finds a spiritual application for its own articles of faith, such as Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle—that is sure to come. This is certainly along the lines of what the playwrights had in mind when they had Drummond slap the two books together at the end of the trial and place them in his briefcase.

Modern Muse Theatre Company's production of Inherit the Wind runs through September 18th at the Bug Theatre. 303-780-7836.

Bob Bows


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