Inherit the Wind, produced by the Strawberry Theatre Project, is as timely now as in 1950, when it was written, drawing attention to the injustice and bigotry of the McCarthy era by telling another story of injustice and bigotry. The play is a fictionalized version of the famous “Scopes” monkey trial, when John Scopes, a biology substitute-teacher, was prosecuted for teaching evolution, in a Tennessee public school, in 1925. Three-time Democratic presidential candidate and populist, William Jennings Bryan prosecuted the case, sparring with his one-time ally Clarence Darrow, representing the defense. Drawing, in part, on the court records, the dialogue is incredibly witty, with larger-than-life characters, dramatic conflict and social meaning.
Unfortunately the Strawberry Theatre Project’s production lacked all of the above, and was very tedious. Primarily, the direction lacked both creativity and technical skill. Nothing new or interesting was added to the interpretation even though we live in an era of populist right-wing bigots, who publicly oppose the teaching of evolution.
Then there was the set and blocking, which broke the cardinal rule: “Use the space”. Occupying two-thirds of the stage on one side, the “set” where the courtroom scenes take place was a platform. This platform did not represent a courtroom and the unrealistic staging suggested a family argument seen in TV-style close-ups rather than a dramatic historical event.
Indeed, the “courtroom” looked like a small interrogation room in a Soviet era prison, with the two leads, sitting down and arguing head to head about six inches apart. On a technical level many of the best lines were delivered upstage and I missed hearing some of the better ones and had to ask my neighbor what they had said (NB my hearing is fine.) There was a large movie screen on the back wall, which was never used. When the actors in the courtroom, did move, they just walked around the judge in unmotivated circles, undermining the Judge’s authority and the dramatic tension. The scenes outside of the courtroom were staged off to one side, which made them seem superfluous.
In addition, the director used too few actors and no extras, so the crowd scenes, suggested by special effects, never were threatening. The resulting double, triple and quadruple casting was ineffective because the costuming, physicality and voices did not differentiate characters.
In a play taking place in Eastern Tennessee, the accents with the exception of Alycia Delmore, as the Judge, were vague inconsistent attempts at mild generic Southern accents, not the Appalachian accents of the region. A native of Lincoln, Nebraska, Matthew Harrison Brady (William Jennings Bryan) played by Todd Jefferson Moore, was more Southern than Midwestern; he omitted the hard “R’s and substituted a different sound for the elongated nasalized Midwestern “ah” sound, which is only heard in some East Coast dialects.
Todd Jefferson Moore as Brady, a three-time presidential candidate and great orator, was badly miscast as well as badly directed. He lacked charisma, heroism and the crusading zeal of a champion of women’s rights & labor unions, as well as Prohibition & Creationism (Cretinism?). Brady/Bryan was also a great orator, which this production did not convey.
As Drummond (Darrow) Reginald Andre Jackson, an African American, has a chesty deep baritone voice that frankly did not sound like an Ohio native who lived in Chicago. Drummond/Darrow was the most famous and highest paid lawyer in the country, at the time. Therefore, he would have had the presence and chutzpah to take command of a room. Instead Drummond‚Äôs character was undermined by his body language. Presumably to show age, he walked bent over at the hips. This suggested an intimidated underling trying to keep a low profile, which was at odds with the script. By being bent over, and looking at the floor, the audience saw the top of Drummond/Darrow’s head and hair, which was not as expressive as his face and eyes. Given proper direction Jackson could have delivered a fine performance, certainly he did so as Macbeth last summer. Both leads relied on raised voices and ostentation displays of manufactured anger rather than vocal agility with language.
The one character who was able to deliver the wit, timing and comic relief, was Nick Garrison as EK Hornbeck (H.L.Mencken) the infamous Baltimore reporter/columnist, who covered the trial. Using a decidedly East Coast accent and a sassy Bugs Bunny smart-aleck personality, he was believable as an “outsider” and highly entertaining.
The choice of music was inspired. In a region whose musical heritage is blue-grass or Gospel, according to my Eastern Tennessee companion that evening, the director chose to use raunchy early Jazz for the scene changes. This music was the perfect metaphor for the powerful unsettling forces of modernity intruding on an intellectually straight-jacketed community.
Nothing could be timelier than this play, but nothing could be more disappointing than this production.
INHERIT THE WIND. Produced by Strawberry Theatre Workshop, Erickson Theatre Off Broadway, 1524 Harvard Ave E ( around the corner from the Egyptian.) Fri-Sat. at 8 pm. $30. (800) 838-3006