Inherit the Wind at Fifty Foot Penguin
Under the direction of Zach Curtis, Fifty Foot Penguin Theater mounts a vigorous, and even timely, production of the American classic Inherit the Wind, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. The play is a fictionalized retelling of the famous Scopes "monkey trail" of 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee that pits Darwin's Evolution against Creationism. Curtis' Inherit is simply but effectively staged and, true to the tradition of Fifty Foot, it is well acted; but its tenor of high-minded social realism feels distractingly derivative, since the company staged Rose's Twelve Angry Men this time last year, using some of the same actors, playing similar archetypal roles.
Both are dramatic, period courtroom plays that take place in sweaty heat waves before air-conditioning was common. Both take a moral stance, in the style of social realism, and both signal a cultural shift away from closed-minded prejudice and assume a moral high ground that feels invigorating but that is tinged with self-righteous superiority.
Inherit changes the names of the people involved in the Scopes trial and alters the historical characters and facts just enough to clarify the play's agenda of championing progressive, free thought over ignorant, narrow-minded bigotry. In the play, a young school teacher named Cates has taught Evolution to his high school biology class, in contravention of state law, and he has been thrown in jail. Into town sweeps William Harrison Brady to prosecute Cates. Brady is a populist orator, three-time presidential candidate and literalist believer in the "revealed word" of the Bible. William Drummond, a renowned defender of enlightenment, slides quietly into town to defend the teacher, and much of the action is the dramatic battle of wills in the courtroom.
Bruce Hyde, the silver-haired actor, who so persuasively played Juror Eight In Angry Men last season, plays virtually the same role in Inherit. His Drummond is a touch more folksy, but otherwise, this Drummond is Juror Eight, an agile, likeable thinker who is committed to upholding open thought in the face of overwhelming bigotry.
Stuffed in a fat suit as the larger-than-life Brady, Bob Malos ably takes the role of the narrow-minded blocker of free thought, as he did last year as Juror Three. The role of Brady allows Malos some nuance beyond archetypal baddie, and he has a nice moment when Brady intervenes to rescue Cates' girlfriend Rachel (Meaghan Kittridge) from being condemned to damnation by her fire-and-brimstone father, Reverend Brown.
Jim Pounds, another Angry Men alumnus, plays the Reverend and, illumined from above by Michael Frohling's dramatic lighting, Pound delivers the preacher's prayer meeting in a scorching litany, fueled by fear and hate. One more Angry Men alumnus shines in this production. Edwin Strout plays multiple roles and, with the simple shift of changed body language, I knew which character he was portraying. Josh Jabbas takes on similar multiple roles and is appealing as 13-year-old Howard. Sean Byrd plays Hornbeck, the cynical journalist; a well-cast Stephen Frethem takes on quiet Cates; and Ellen Karsten, Steve Lattery, Dale Pfeilsticker and Heather Stone round out the large cast.
In a time when the political climate in the USA has turned sharp right, religious fundamentalism is in the ascendancy and Creationism is once more being pushed as an alternative to Evolution, Inherit brings urgent tidings of rationalism.
My criticism of the play is less with its bias, which I sympathize, but with its too close parallels with and too close season placement to Fifty Foot's 12 Angry Men. The vigor of seeing the first robs the second of its impact.
If you did not see Twelve Angry Men, you might want to see Inherit the Wind. It's a sound production that will feel fresh to you, and its overly simplified, right-versus-wrong take on the Scopes trail will send you out into the world infused with a satisfying sense of moral superiority.
Inherit the Wind December 3 - 18, 2004. Wednesdays - Thursdays 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets $15. Fifty Foot Penguin Theater, 2951, Cedar Riverside People's Center, Minneapolis, Tickets: 612- 381-1110. www.fiftyfootpenguintheatertheater.com.