Though on the surface it's a play about evolution, what Inherit the Wind, the Jerome Lawrence/Robert E. Lee work based on the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, is really about is freedom of thought and the value of ideas, especially ideas that cut across deeply ingrained religious principles. And like any play about ideas, Inherit the Wind succeeds or fails not only on how clearly the ideas are expressed, but how important the struggle over them is made to seem. In that area, unfortunately, the Alley's current production falls short.
Given the richness of the source material, that's a particular pity. Writers Lawrence and Lee had a strong story and fascinating real-life characters to draw from in their dramatization. And though they changed names and manipulated history a little, the actual people behind the fictional characters are often easy to see: Defense attorney Drummond is clearly Clarence Darrow, and prosecutor Brady is obviously the aging William Jennings Bryan. The unnamed town is easily Dayton, Tennessee, where the schoolteacher defendant (Scopes in actuality; Cates in the play) taught Darwin's theory of evolution in his biology class, violating state law and setting in motion a battle between science and faith, change and tradition. But in detailing this struggle, the Alley's Wind casts a romantic and remarkably one-sided glance back at the Old South, a choice that doesn't always serve the strengths of the story.
Set on the Alley's main stage, the play's two acts take place in a plain country courtroom in which the judge's dais is a simple wooden desk and the jurors sit in straight-back chairs. As in almost every play about ideas, there are few characters who rise above one facet of the argument, in this case, creation versus evolution. The two characters that are fully drawn are the attorneys: The exchanges between James Black as Drummond and Tom Lacy as Brady are fiery and satisfying, but they're also, unfortunately, one of the production's sole triumphs.
Weak choices hobble the Alley's effort, especially in the portrayal of small-town life. Instead of humanizing the voices of the townspeople, director Gregory Boyd has removed them by virtue of recording technology, using speakers to eerily pipe their commentary on the events into the theater. The bustle outside the courtroom and in the town square has also been recorded, and other casual street interchanges take place behind a sepia-tinted scrim, separated from the events of the courtroom, and thus from the audience. The lasting effect is that the townspeople become ethereal beings without fleshy substance. Their arguments, hollow sounding without bodies behind them, are predictable -- evolution is wrong because it's not in the Bible. The challenge of good argument lies in beating a worthwhile opponent, and by robbing the townspeople of their bodies, of their contact with the audience, the Alley's Wind gives Drummond little to overcome apart from his blustering peer.
The supporting roles don't add much. Perhaps due to their paper-thin characterization, they're less than enticing: John Feltch as the accused teacher, Cates, and Shelley Williams as the timid Rachel Brown, a preacher's daughter and the teacher's girlfriend, simply don't compel the audience to feel a thing. The play does occasionally shine through with a funny (if cynical and hopelessly one-sided) journalist, Hornbeck, played by Jeffrey Bean. We can forgive Lawrence and Lee, if not the Alley, for the metaphor overload in his dialogue, since it gives us a peek back at a time when reporters were celebrated for swagger and could utter pickup lines such as, "I may be rancid butter, but I'm on your side of the bread."
In the tradition of law in Southern literature, though, it's the pursuit of truth through the legal system that provides the most interesting moments. As Drummond, Black fits the bill of an unkempt thinker for whom the free pursuit of knowledge is more important than a pressed shirt. Lacy, as Brady, is a blustering bag of speeches, arguing not only on the side of the Bible, but on the side of the people. A man at the end of his career, Brady is searching for a platform, any platform, and Lacy makes his character's desperation real.
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Using testimony lifted from the Scopes trial, the second act moves along much better than the first, culminating in a high point in which Drummond, left with no other option because of the judge's refusal to hear any scientific opinion, cross-examines Brady on the Bible. These fleeting moments are the play's strongest, because as Drummond, Black highlights sections of the good book in which science is central, and the battle between the two men, one on the side of scientific fact, the other on the side of faith, is wonderfully clear.
Still, there is more to wonder about in this production than there is to celebrate -- the stage is twice graced with the presence of a live, and terrified looking, monkey accompanying an organ grinder, and the sense of removed action through the scrim results in a parody of genuine emotion. The audience is forced to the side of evolution not because it's supported by the most substantial argument, but because the side arguing creationism is filled with enough straw men to populate a state full of corn fields.
There are few theatrical warhorses as sturdy as Inherit the Wind; it's become a special favorite of history and literature teachers, who respond to the quest for new ideas the play celebrates. But its inevitable preachiness and the accompanying sludge of rhetoric tend to make it less successful on-stage than on the printed page. The most promising theatrical appeal of Inherit the Wind is in the pleasure of a good argument. And in the Alley's version, that element is far too difficult to glean.
Inherit the Wind plays through November 16 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 228-8421.