review: inherit the wind

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[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-INHERIT.html]
Inherit the Wind

by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee
Directed by Jessica Thebus
Northlight Theatre
North Shore Center for the Performing Arts / http://www.northlight.org
Through November 12, 2006

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
October 15, 2006

As full disclosure, I must note that “Inherit the Wind” is one of my favorite plays. I leaf through my own well-thumbed hardcover copy of the play to locate resonant speeches, and regularly view the 1960 movie version throughout any year. This was my first opportunity to view this American classic on stage, in its original context, and the structure, the speeches, the theatricality of the piece is splendid. Northlight Theatre‘s streamlined and modernistic vision supports and does not overwhelm the power of the words we have driven out to the Chicago suburbs to hear, and the themes we have come to see explored. We in the audience are fellow townspeople or members of the jury or visitors in the courtroom, depending on the particular setting. And we watch as if from a historical distance the quaint country people with their quaint country ways, until we realize that the play’s arguments about the role of religion in public life, and the role of righteous belief in tailoring educational curricula to fit one vision of what is right and true is just as relevant in 21st century America as it was at the beginning of the 20th century in a small town in Tennessee. This play is for the ages. Most aspects of this lovely production are lasting too.

In a “summer, not too long ago” in “a small town” (as proxy for the Tennessee town that host the actual Scopes trial in summer 1925 upon which this play is based), a young school teacher Bertram Cates (Levi Holloway) dares to teach Darwin’s theory of evolution to his class of high school students. As this is in violation of state law specifically prohibiting the teaching of this theory, Cates is prosecuted for this violation. The earnestly religious town leaders and townspeople support the law and turn on their own neighbor initially – is it fear of change or simply mob rule that encourages this behavior? The case becomes a national referendum rather than a local response to a unique and questionable state law when national figures descend on the town. Matthew Harrison Brady (Tony Mockus), evangelical and national political leader, arrives to prosecute, and Henry Drummond (Scott Jaeck), defender of the oppressed, human rights, and the separation of church from politics and education, arrives to defend young Cates. Rather than a local corrective to a miscreant teacher, the case becomes a test of the right of a legislative body to determine the nature of a school curriculum. Also in town to observe and comment is E. K. Hornbeck (Joe Dempsey), a reporter from Baltimore, who has arrived along with scores of other national press representatives to relay the news of this small town’s behavior to the rest of the world.

Cates’s story as portrayed in this play is one of an earnest young teacher, struggling to educate young minds. This professional mission is balanced, as it always must be, by the rest of human civilization: the young teacher’s community (Hillsboro, Tennessee), the state legal structure in which that community exists, and the young woman Rachel (Erica Elam) Cates loves, and daughter of the religious leader of the community. Cates’s struggle to accommodate his philosophical stance about his professional position with this love for Rachel is a touching dimension of the story. This is not as successfully resonant in this production as other performances, yet the performances are sweet.

There are several proxies for the audience member in this play and in this production. First there are the good townspeople (represented by ensemble members) who attend a revival meeting, populate the courtroom, and are members of the jury in the course of the show play another role — a sort of mob that righteously cheers their hero at one point and turns on him at another. The modern audience member can also tag along with the character Hornbeck, the cynical reporter. At one point he describes his role: “I’m not a reporter, I’m a critic. .. I’m here on a press pass and I don’t intend on missing any part of the show.” We see his commentary through his words and also through director Jessica Thebus’s placement of him on the stage: lurking at the edges, hanging from the outsized ladders that define the edges of the set. Hornbeck is the role of the cynical chorus, outsider, with no invested interest in the outcome but doubting the intentions of everyone.

Brady becomes our tragic hero, whose humanity is revealed in tender sequences with Rachel and with Rachel’s dad. Yet his tragic flaw is his blindness to the possibilities of a secular human society. He is sensitive to the effects of imposing rigid religious interpretations and retributions on individually identified people (i.e. Rachel, a religious young woman), but he is not sensitive to the effects of religious imperialism and encroachment on the legislative process on a young man like Bertram Cates. The performance by Mockus is evocative but not overwhelming in this role.

Jaeck as Drummond, on the other hand, builds through quietude a grand performance. “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind”, from Proverbs, is initially quoted by Brady to Rachel’s dad Reverend Jeremiah Brown at a point when Brown’s rhetoric makes a righteous statement yet clearly verbally condemns his own child Rachel. Used at this moment, the quotation illustrates that the rigid Brady has room for human kindness, and will tempers his rhetorical wrath to the needs of his human audience. Later in the play, the quotation is started by Hornbeck, and completed by the purported agnostic Drummond, setting up the final integrative speeches and stages actions of the play.

The glorious modernist set by Brian Sidney Bembridge creates multiple playing areas and surprising images as metaphors. Where are the multi-purpose oversized ladders leading to – heaven or some other constructed location? How do we interpret the row of doll houses lining the back of the stage – as the local townspeople watching the action of the play or as commentary on the content of the play itself? The joy is in the multiple possible interpretations of the set design choices. As a delightful bonus, characters crawl upon these structures in different ways at different times of the action, suggesting the media and literal hangers-on who watched the action of the court case as if a radio play, a serial, a docu-drama, a soap opera.

This is a story of people finding their limits in language, in action, in philosophy, in politics. This is a story of the choice between whether to live in the world of human interactions, or to live in a world of superhuman/extraterrestrial/spiritual expectations and activities. This is a story of valuing the human sphere as much as the spiritual sphere, and respecting the difference. The core of the play comes near the end of the second act, when Brady asks of his interrogator Drummond, “Is it possible that something is holy to the celebrated agnostic?” Drummond replies forcefully yet calmly, deliberately, providing the concrete examples that bring tears to a humanist’s eyes. “Yes! The individual human mind. In a child’s power to master the multiplication table there is more sanctity than in all your shouted ‘Amens!’, ‘Holy, Holies!’ and ‘Hosannahs!’. An idea is a greater monument than a cathedral. And the advance of man’s knowledge is more a miracle than any sticks turned to snakes, or the parting of the waters!” If the resonance between the events dramatized in this play and today’s political climate remain opaque to the theatre-goer, excellent materials included in the playbill and in lobby displays by dramaturg Rosie Forrest will fill in the gaps. A marvelous revival of a classic American play.

© Martha Wade Steketee (October 15, 2006)

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