The classic play of science vs. religion deserves a better production than the one at the Kalita Humphreys Theater
Inherit the Wind is one of those works — The Great Gatsby is another — that, for 30 years now, I have read, and reread, and reread again, at irregular intervals, just to remind myself of the language and ideas and the power of thought. A dramatization of the Scopes Monkey Trial — the real-life 1925 clash between two great lawyers in Dayton, Tenn., arguing the merits of Darwin’s theory of evolution and whether it could be taught in a public school — Inherit the Wind profoundly shaped my understanding of intellect, of religion, and of the human capacity for transcendence.
It’s such a sturdy piece of theater, so resonant, that it is able to overcome Dallas Theater Center’s strange minimalist production, now onstage at the Kalita Humphreys.
We are greeted by a stark white stage dominated by words, spray-painted in large, furious letters, “Read your Bible.” Next to it, a crucifix impales a blood-splattered cartoon chimp, eyes X’d out, while a smiling inflatable toy monkey grins dumbly from one of 15 chairs (almost the only “set” to speak of). The cast members wander onstage in modern dress (but not, it seems, curated costumes — they could have rushed in from the street for all we can tell). Then, in a preamble, they tell us their own stories of religion and science, as if understanding the actors as humans will deepen our appreciation for a play written before almost all of them were born. (It does not.)
These choices by director Kevin Moriarty cloud and distract from a script noted for its verisimilitude. The staging seems designed to minimize the impact of the structure. Since all the actors are almost always onstage, entrances designed to heighten the drama are lost; the famed “suspenders” reveal never comes, because the character never takes off his jacket. Shakespeare sometimes needs to come out of its tights and frill collars to jolt audiences out of their theater-consuming indolence; a too-seldom produced classic of Americana like Inherit does not. The style so poisons Act 1, I almost didn’t come back for Act 2.
Ultimately, I‘m glad I did, because that’s the heart and mind of the play, the great (and largely true!) courtroom drama between fundamentalist prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady (played by Liz Mikel) and atheist defense attorney Henry Drummond (Kieran Connolly), parsing passages of the Bible in a debate over whether man has the capacity to think for himself beyond the gilt pages of Scripture. Even with its small-town PTA meeting design, the force of the language — pitting intellectual maneuvering in favor of progress over smallmindedness — is too mouthwateringly compelling to ignore.
Connolly and Mikel make it work. Although the race-blind and gender-neutral casting mostly is a distraction, the verbal sparring and passion of both crackle like static in the air. Alex Organ as the droll critic E.K. Hornbeck (the most stylized character in the piece) makes the role his own.
You can’t watch Inherit the Wind in 2017 and not be aware of the anti-intellectualism that swept 45 into the White House, or which plagues Texas textbook vetting. Like The Crucible, its message is post historic and cautionary. If only classics like these can survive the boondoggles of well-intentioned theater artists. It’s a play that deserves to be seen… and deserves a better production than this.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 02, 2017.