Scopes Trial drama still relevant today

In 1925, Tennessee biology teacher John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution.

In 1925, Tennessee biology teacher John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution.

Alabama Judge Roy Moore was removed from office for refusing to take down the Ten Commandments from the courthouse grounds in 2003.

The more things change, the more things remain the same, and that’s why “Inherit the Wind,” by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, a play based on the 1925 Scopes Trial, still interests us.

The creative forces at Albany Civic Theater are offering a satisfying production of this 1955 script that explores the challenges to free speech.

Lawrence & Lee cleverly frame the debate in both personal and public ways. The teacher, Bertram Cates (Nate Beynon), loves Rachel Brown (Katie Weinberg), daughter of the Rev. Brown (Chas Treadwell), a critic of Cates. She’d like Cates to retract his statements so life can return to normal. But she knows he is too intellectually honest to do so; thus, she’s conflicted.

Publicly, Cates first becomes a pariah in his own small town and then a bit player on the national stage as prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady (Barry Corlew) and defense attorney Henry Drummond (Chris Foster) use the case to advance their religious and free speech points of view. The trial scene makes for lively theater and stimulating thinking.

Director Carol King, who is my colleague at The Gazette, has ably shepherded nearly 25 performers of all ages around Mary Ellen Masterson’s multi-purpose set, one that, with apt lighting design by Lars Allanson, serves for town square and courthouse scenes. Dressed in Beth Ruman’s splendid period costumes, the actors create memorable stage pictures: wonderful blocking. And the running commentary by the crowd always feels spontaneous, the result, of course, of careful rehearsing.

Kevin McNamara is deliciously snarky as Baltimore journalist E. K. Hornbeck. As Mrs. Brady, Jean Foss touchingly depicts a devoted spouse. Beynon and Weinberg credibly convey youthful frustration with the ways of a world they didn’t make.

Corlew and Foster are two superb actors whose performances here are a bit monochromatic. Corlew captures Brady’s loud self-promotion, and he moves us in Brady’s breakdown under Drummond’s cross-examination. But I missed an occasional quieter tone that would have thrown into relief these extremes.

Foster is, arguably, too young for Drummond, but because he is so accomplished, we can almost ignore the fact. However, the performance’s range seems narrow. Foster’s Drummond is angry from the start, and there are times when Drummond is just physically threatening or petulant. The text allows for more nuance, from which the cat-and-mouse scene, good as it is, would benefit. Nevertheless, Foster’s interaction with young Howard Blair (the spirited Colum Cross), his retort to Hornbeck, and his last scene with the Bible and Darwin’s manifesto believably depict Drummond’s complexity.

The strains of “Give Me That Old Time Religion” open the show, but this play effectively reminds us that we should be careful what we wish for.

Categories: Entertainment

Leave a Reply