Posts Tagged ‘robert edwin lee’

Inherit the Wind
by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee
Directed by Sydnie Grosberg Ronga
Insight Theatre Company
August 18, 2016

Alan Knoll, John Contini Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Alan Knoll, John Contini
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Inherit the Wind is Lawrence and Lee’s classic play that highly fictionalizes events relating to one of the 20th Century’s most famous trials in order to communicate the playwrights’ message. It has been performed by countless professional, amateur, and school theatres over the years and it has been filmed several times. Now, Insight Theatre Company has brought this well-known play to the stage in St. Louis, featuring a cast of excellent local actors and boasting impressive production values.

The story of this play isn’t really about the Scopes trial. It’s the playwrights’ imagining of the trial seen through the lens of 1950’s McCarthyism and anti-intellectualism. The playwrights weren’t shy about saying that, notably mentioning in their preface to the script that this isn’t intended to be a historically accurate portrayal. If you want an accurate representation of what happened in Dayton, TN in 1925, there are much better resources, but the purpose of this play was never to teach a history lesson about the trial or the real people involved, and some key characters and situations have been entirely invented. Its William Jennings Bryan stand-in, Matthew Harrison Brady (Alan Knoll) comes across as more McCarthy-as-Bryan, for instance, and the primary “every day person” representative, Rachel Brown (Sigrid Wise), is an entirely original character.

The basic framework of the Scopes trial is here, though, with Brady coming to town to lead the prosecution of high school teacher Bertram Cates (Pete Winfrey) who’s been arrested for violating the state’s law against the teaching of evolution. Defending Cates is the play’s Clarence Darrow figure, the intrepid, thoughtful Henry Drummond (John Contini). The town, as portrayed here, is dominated by fundamentalist zealots who welcome the much-admired Brady with parades and prayer meetings while the agnostic Drummond becomes a target for suspicion and scorn. His biggest ally is the cynical Baltimore reporter E. K. Hornbeck (Jason Contini), who snarks his way through the ensuing trial and doesn’t bother to conceal his contempt for the town and its people. Drummond gets to be the hero here, as the representative of free thinking in a repressive society, as Brady in all his grandiosity represents repression, misplaced nostalgia, and fear of change and new ideas. In the midst of all of the debates and sensationalism we see the conflicted Rachel trying to figure what influences to follow–the past and blind obedience to tradition as represented by her father (Michael Brightman), an influential local preacher, and championed by the charismatic Brady; or the free exchange of ideas personified by Cates and, to an even larger degree, Drummond.

The two central figures in all this drama are undoubtedly Drummond and Brady, and the success of any production of this play depends largely on the casting of these two pivotal roles. In this production, the leads are extremely well-chosen. Both actors have considerable stage presence, keeping the audience’s attention riveted when they are on stage. Knoll’s Brady is full of bombast and pride, but also a real note of humanity, and John Contini’s Drummond is sympathetic, determined, and likable. Their courtroom scenes are dynamic, although their best moment is at the end of Act 1 as they sit together on a bench, reflecting on their past friendship and the direction their lives have taken. Other notable performances include Winfrey and Wise as the earnest Cates and conflicted Rachel, and Jason Contini as the proudly cynical Hornbeck. Brightman, as Reverend Jeremiah Brown, also makes the most of a role that’s written to be one dimensional. There’s a strong ensemble, as well, playing various townspeople and figures in the trial.

Visually, the re-creation of a 1920’s small town is well done, with Kyra Bishop’s excellent set and Tracey Newcomb-Margraves costumes setting the mood and atmosphere well, although there was apparently a somewhat strange decision to have most of the jury wearing modern clothes with only a few accessories (hats, shawls, etc.) to suggest the time period. Sean Savoie’s lighting and Brett Harness’s sound design also contribute well to the overall tone of the production.

Inherit the Wind has a message that still resonates today, about freedom of expression and the dangers of a restrictive, anti-intellectual society. In terms of style, it does come across as somewhat dated although the performances can make a production. That’s the case with this production at Insight, with two extremely strong leads and a memorable supporting cast making for a fascinating, thought-provoking story.

Sigrid Wise, Pete Winfrey, John Contini Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Sigrid Wise, Pete Winfrey, John Contini
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company is presenting Inherit the Wind at Nerinx Hall’s Heagney Theatre until August 28, 2016.

Read Full Post »