Foster feels up to challenge of ‘Inherit the Wind’ part

A movie part synonymous with Spencer Tracy and a character that brought Broadway acclaim to Paul Mun
From left, Barry Corlew (Matthew Harrison Brady), Colun Cross (Howard) and Chris Foster (Henry Drummond) rehearse a scene from "Inherit the Wind" at Albany Civic Theater.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
From left, Barry Corlew (Matthew Harrison Brady), Colun Cross (Howard) and Chris Foster (Henry Drummond) rehearse a scene from "Inherit the Wind" at Albany Civic Theater.

Chris Foster had to think twice about playing Henry Drummond.

A movie part synonymous with Spencer Tracy and a character that brought Broadway acclaim to Paul Muni, George C. Scott and Christopher Plummer, Henry Drummond is an actor’s dream role, and Foster will have the opportunity to put his spin on it when Albany Civic Theater presents “Inherit the Wind” beginning Friday at 8 p.m. and running through May 18. There will be a pay-what-you-will preview tonight at 8.

A play written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee and based on the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tenn., “Inherit the Wind” is a courtroom drama showcasing the wit and talents of its two lead attorneys who argue the case of evolution and whether it should be taught in the classroom. Drummond is modeled after defense attorney Clarence Darrow, and his counterpart for the state is Matthew Harrison Brady, based on three-time Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Playing Brady is Barry Corlew.

Plum role

“I do see it as a plum role, and while I have to say that I’m more interested in doing new theater, sometimes these opportunities come up and you have to take advantage of it,” said Foster, a fixture at Albany Civic for more than 10 years now.

’Inherit the Wind’

WHERE: Albany Civic Theater, 235 Second Ave., Albany

WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Thursdays, through May 18

HOW MUCH: $15

MORE INFO: 462-1297 or albanycivictheater.org

“It’s a big hairy role and I was thinking to myself, ‘Am I up for it?’ I didn’t really have my eye on it at first, but then I revisited the character for a few minutes and realized that it’s a pretty juicy role.”

Any hesitation Foster might have had about accepting the role was quickly squashed when rehearsals started.

“I found the character came easily to me, easier than I expected,” he said. “So, it’s been an extraordinary pleasure working with Barry Corlew and it’s been great fun to explore the relationship between Drummond and Brady. And the other people, Nate Beynon playing [schoolteacher Bertram] Cates and Kevin McNamara as [reporter E.K.] Hornbeck have been great. I connected with them and having all these wonderful people around me made finding my character a lot easier.”

Director Carol King said she was thrilled when both Foster and Corlew showed up for auditions, and while they could have tried reversing the roles — Foster as Brady and Corlew as Drummond — King felt more comfortable with Foster playing the liberal and Corlew the bible-thumping conservative.

“Barry is very well put together; you can see him getting a manicure every day, and Chris is the more hulking, animal type,” said King. “They have both really taken to their roles and they do their characters fluently. I’ve worked with Chris a lot before, and I’ve seen Barry’s work before. I was very happy they both showed up, and it’s been a joy to work with each of them.”

No undue influence

While the specter of Tracy hanging over the character of Drummond is impossible to overlook for those who have seen the movie, Foster says he’s not weighed down with that baggage.

“I suppose I may have seen the movie at some point in my youth, but I have to say that I really don’t remember that much about it,” he said. “And while I’ve read the play, I’m ashamed to say I’ve never seen it. But that’s one of the beautiful things about doing this. I don’t have to worry about that. Other people may worry about it and they might have these expectations, but for me the character is pure on my part. I get to examine it from a different perspective and that’s freeing to me. That’s why I didn’t want to see it, but when this is over, it will be interesting to go back and watch the movie.”

Corlew felt pretty much the same way about Brady, who was played by Fredric March in the film and by Ed Begley Sr., Brian Dennehy and Charles Durning on Broadway.

“I would have loved to have seen the latest Broadway production, and I’ve only seen bits and pieces of the film,” said Corlew.

“This always comes up when you’re doing a show that had huge success as a film, but I try not to get involved in all that. I knew the story well enough to understand that it is a great head-to-head fight and that it added up to an explosive situation. It’s a great courtroom drama, and when I read the play I loved the language. I didn’t need to see any other version. The words brought me to my character.”

Lawrence and Lee, a pair of World War II army buddies, wrote “Inherit the Wind” in the early 1950s and got it produced on Broadway in 1955. After a two-year run, with Muni and Begley both winning Tonys, Hollywood made the movie version in 1960, and Broadway revivals were done in 1996 and last year. Lawrence and Lee reportedly were not so much interested in the issue of evolution being taught in the classroom, but instead wrote the play as a protest to McCarthyism and the Red Scare in America following World War II.

“With all the creationism and evolution issues going on in school systems throughout America, the subject matter in this play is more prevalent today than when it first came out,” said Corlew, “and the wonderful thing about this play is that it doesn’t push one viewpoint down your throat. The way it’s written, you have to decide who wins and who loses as you leave the theater.”

“I’ve been surprised just since I started working on this play how many stories I’ve read about how this debate is still going on in this country,” said Foster. “But it has broader themes than just that one issue. It’s about the inner strength it takes to change your mind when everyone around you is saying this is the way things should be.”

By popular demand

This will be the first time “Inherit the Wind” has been produced by Albany Civic Theater.

“We have a little book in the lobby where we allow our audience members to put in their preferences for next season,” said King. “With all the evolution vs. creationism issues going on the past few years, this title has popped up quite a bit. So I decided to go ahead and submit it. I have never seen a stage version, but I can tell you I’m very impressed by what I’ve seen so far. I love this play.”

For Foster, whose roles at Albany Civic include George in “Of Mice and Men,” Petruchio in “Taming of the Shrew,” Lt. Col. N.P. Chipman in “The Andersonville Trial,” Oscar Wilde in “Gross Indecency” and the title character in “Henry VIII,” the opportunity to play Drummond has presented him with a different kind of acting experience.

“One of the things I’m enjoying about this character is his abruptness, his gruffness,” said Foster. “He’s not politically correct, he burps and farts his way around the courtroom and aggravates people right and left. There’s a looseness to his character that I like and it’s something new to me, because as an actor I’m big on technique and I like to have control. It’s been a challenge and a delight at the same time.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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