The formula for the Rep's success seems simple: Take a well-written, entertaining play, jam-packed with big themes and crackling dialogue; cast two great actors, Joneal Joplin and Philip Pleasants, in the lead roles; give them an imaginative director, Edward Stern; surround them with a talented ensemble on a great set -- and you've got a hit. Simple? Right.
Inherit the Wind, written in 1955 by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, is a fictionalized version of the 1925 "Monkey Trial" of high-school teacher John Scopes, who, at the request of the ACLU, challenged the new Tennessee law forbidding the teaching of evolution. Scopes was defended by Clarence Darrow, and three-time presidential candidate, orator and Bible literalist William Jennings Bryant was brought in for the prosecution. With the help of that newfangled invention the radio, the debate between evolution and creationism was introduced onto the national scene, where it still rages 75 years later. The Scopes trial became one of the first media circuses, as well as the first of many cases to be called "the trial of the century." In a sense, it was the barely new century itself that was on trial. The Great War had shifted the moral terrain, and scientific progress had introduced shades of gray into what used to be a black-and-white world.
Lawrence and Lee dramatized the event as a way of addressing the troubled state of freedom of speech in the shadow of the McCarthy hearings (ironically, they felt that the evolution debate had been settled). The play, and the 1960 movie version starring Spencer Tracy and Frederic March (and directed with his usual sledgehammer by Stanley Kramer, the Oliver Stone of his day), was the way most people became familiar with the Scopes trial. Inherit the Wind changes Bryant to Matthew Harrison Brady (played at the Rep by Joplin) and Darrow to Henry Drummond (Pleasants), and it necessarily compresses and invents action. The questions and issues raised -- the individual's right to think (the "right to be wrong," as a character puts it), the price of progress and the loss of civil discourse -- could just as easily be about RU-486, gun control or next month's election.
The playwrights successfully keep their characters from becoming just mouthpieces for their positions. Of course, good actors help, and Joplin and Pleasants are both wonderful. As Brady, Joplin presents a man who, like any public figure who's been around a while, has become a caricature of himself. The mask has become the reality, and when Brady starts charming the townsfolk, who bask in his attention, it's hard to believe this man ever lost an election. But Joplin chooses key moments to let us glimpse the humanity beneath the inflated balloon Brady has become. The script stacks the deck against Brady; after all, the playwrights are solidly on Drummond's side, and the inherent danger in the play is that if Brady and his ideas are presented in a condescending way, there's no real conflict. But Joplin's Brady is so solid in his beliefs that he makes creationism sound plausible. It's another on the long list of roles that Joplin was seemingly born to play. For the defense, Pleasants creates a perfect Drummond, stooped like the real Darrow, with a light step, a razor-sharp wit that enjoys itself and eyes that sparkle with the passion of his crusade. Is it that Drummond gets all the good lines, or can Pleasants make any line sound good?
The play builds to the inevitable second-act courtroom confrontation between the two giants, and it's great fun watching these two square off and enjoy themselves both as characters and actors. Stern trusts his cast and lets them play out their moments; silence becomes as important as words. Joplin makes a bold choice and has Brady pause for what seems like an eternity when considering a crucial question posed by Drummond: Could the first day as described in Genesis possibly have been more than 24 hours long? In the ensuing silence, Joplin lets us see Brady's rock-solid faith slide just an inch -- but enough to shift his entire world -- and we know he'll never be the same.
Jason Bowcutt is strong as defendant Bertram Cates, and Allison Krizner is very good in the difficult role of Cates' co-teacher Rachel Brown. The playwrights wisely begin the evening with a scene between Cates and Brown, giving this play of ideas a human element, and Bowcutt and Krizner gets us involved right from the start. David Haugen plays the cynical E.K. Hornbeck, the "big city" reporter sent to cover the trial. The character, based on H.L. Mencken, helps put the trial in a larger cultural perspective. Every word out of his mouth drips with sarcasm, but it's mostly for his own entertainment; the locals just don't get it. Haugen does a good job handling what could easily become an overdrawn character.
The town prayer meeting is a highlight. As the sanctimonious Rev. Jeremiah Brown (a perfectly creepy Robert Elliott) preaches the crowd into a frenzy and calls down the wrath of God on their enemies, Stern, in a marvelous visual comment, has the townsfolk de-evolve before our eyes, their so-called "religion" turning them back into apes.
What a delight to see a crowded stage at the Rep! They don't write plays like this anymore, demanding a company of more than 40 actors, and such plays don't get produced much, either. The entire ensemble deserves notice, especially Whit Reichert, Jerry Vogel, Mark Mocahbee, Paul Hebron and Dane Knell, who plays the overlooked but very important role of the judge with such aplomb that one suspects he must really be a small-town judge posing as an actor. Young Emma Longworth-Mills helps introduce Drummond with a hilarious bloodcurdling scream, and Jill Tanner is good as the long-suffering Mrs. Brady, although it would have been nice to see more evidence of their relationship.
Kristine A. Kearney's costumes are excellent, right down to the period hosiery, and Karen TenEyck's backdrop is no less than a re-creation of Michelangelo's "The Creation," with God reaching out to touch the county courthouse. The show begins with the fluffy white clouds above the town turning ominous with a subtle shift of Peter E. Sargent's excellent lighting, which also makes us feel the 97-degree weather in the cramped courthouse.
There's a terrific scene at the end of Act 1 when the two old friends, now adversaries, meet face to face for the first time since arriving in town. Brady asks Drummond how they've moved so far apart. Drummond, quoting yet another scientist, says that all movement is relative; perhaps it's Brady who has moved away just by standing still. Joplin drops his mask for a moment and considers this, then walks off sadly; then, in a wonderful piece of direction, Drummond moves upstage, stops at the "Read your Bible" sign and seems to consider what he's lost in his forward movement. It's a question that's still important in this Information Age: We know more than at any time in history, but what has it done to our souls?