April 29, 2007

A Downdraft for "Inherit the Wind"

There is a pre-show bonus each night before the current revival of Inherit the Wind begins at the Lyceum Theater: a gospel quartet serenades the audience. They're good; so if you go, go early. But they aren't the choir that director Doug Hughes’ production is preaching to. The play, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, is a fictionalized version of the 1925 “Scopes Monkey trial” in which a young science teacher was tried for teaching evolution and breaking a Tennessee law that favored a biblical interpretation of creation. The case became a cause célèbre when Clarence Darrow, the famous defense attorney and ACLU activist; and William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential candidate and devout Christian called in to represent the school board, squared off in the courtroom.

There were other attorneys on both sides but the titans go mano a mano in Inherit the Wind and the roles—Darrow is called Henry Drummond in the play and Bryan, Matthew Harrison Brady—are wet dreams for actors of a certain age. Paul Muni and Ed Begley played Drummond and Brady in the original 1955 production. Spencer Tracy and Fredric March slipped into the suspenders for the 1960 film. Jason Robards Jr. was Drummond and Kirk Douglas Brady in a 1988 made-for-TV movie. George C. Scott and Charles Durning revived the play for the stage in 1996. Then, Scott turned around and took the Brady role against Jack Lemmon's Drummond in another TV movie, which aired just five months before Scott's death in 1999.

The scenery-chewing Drummond is usually the role that gets the approbation, and the awards. Muni won the Tony, Tracy was nominated for an Oscar, Robards took home an Emmy and Lemmon got a Golden Globe. Now, Christopher Plummer has received similar praise for his performance in the current production, while the usually formidable Brian Dennehy has fared less well. Meanwhile the current evolution vs. creationism debate gives the show a particularly relevant sermon to deliver. The “Amens” were almost audible the night my friend Bill and I saw the show. We happened to be sitting in front of a retired theatrical agent, one of the zillions of people Bill knows in the theater world. “Are you loving this as much as I am?” the agent leaned forward to ask us at intermission. We weren't.

Hughes’ production seemed too self-righteous for me. In a fascinating interview on the recent episode of public TV's “Theater Talk” (click here to listen to it), Dennehy argued that Bryan was a primary architect of many of the progressive views that the people in most Manhattan audiences now champion. Dennehy said he tried, as much as the text would allow, to incorporate that side of Bryan into his portrayal of Brady. I don't think his interpretation was entirely successful and I believe Bryan was more complicated than he does—anti-imperialist but pro-prohibition, outspoken on women's suffrage but silent on the South's treatment of blacks. Still I applaud Dennehy's effort to, as he says, portray his Bryan-based character as more than just some Christian Snidely Whiplash. For we seem to be at a time in our culture, and in our politics, when too many of us are content to think in those simple terms of good and evil, blue states and red states, to speak only to those who already agree with what we have to say, and to pat ourselves on the back for doing so.

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