"A nation that does not know its history has no future."
In my estimation, Inherit The Wind, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, if not one of the 10 great American plays, is very close to it. At the Geva Theatre in Rochester, New York, the play, originally produced in 1956, was given a close-to-the-chest staging by director, Skip Greer, with enough professional polish to keep us on track, and enough punch to remind us that there is a human drama beneath the play of ideas. But first, the historical background of the play:
Two giants of early 20th century American history, three-time presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, and the legendary attorney, Clarence Darrow, clashed in the early 1920's, over the issue of teaching evolution in the public schools. John Scopes, a schoolteacher, had deliberately tested Tennessee laws against teaching evolution. As the authors of the play put it – "It might have been yesterday. It could be tomorrow." Since tomorrow is today, the play remains timely, with an edge of relevancy that reminds us of where we are coming from.
Scopes was jailed. And Darrow came to Dayton, Tennessee to defend the teacher. Darrow, at one time, was a supporter of Bryan, a populist. By the time the Scopes "monkey" trial came around, the groundbreaking defense lawyer and the aging candidate were adversaries. The trial was broadcast on radio, the crackling technology of the time. People gathered around the radio with ears glued, and bold headlines and buzz words dominated the newspapers. Much like TV today, with its round robin "experts" interpreting the news, as we nibble on the remains of our dinner. History, if it doesn't repeat itself, has a way of falling into our laps.
Inherit the Wind takes up where history left off. When Matthew Harrison Brady (John Priby) arrives in the small town where the schoolteacher, Bertram Cates (Matt D'Amico), will go on trial for teaching evolution against the law, he is greeted by the locals as a conquering hero, a defender of the faith. The bible-thumping orator knows how to woo his followers with self-promotional oratory. Brady adheres to a strict reading of the Bible against all comers, including the devil himself, in the guise of the defense attorney, Henry Drummond (J. G. Hertzler). Actor John Priby delivers Brady's biblical sales pitch with calculated flair. Yet Brady has another side: age, the exhaustion of a three time Presidential loser, and underlying qualities of anxiety and vulnerability. Qualities compelling the aging politician to win the case against Evolution and revive his reputation. Qualities that Priby doesn't quite integrate until the height of the trial. Only Brady's wife, Sarah Brady (Anne-Marie Cusson) tempers his bluster with motherly concern. When Brady manipulates a naïve school boy (Trevor Bachman) into testifying against the teacher, and then brow beats a vulnerable and frightened Rachel Brown (portrayed compellingly by Nisi Sturgis) to testify against the man she loves. Brady loses his pulse of humanity and it leads him into disaster. He wins the case, loses the argument, and dies of a heart attack after the trial is over.
When defense attorney Henry Drummond (J. G. Hertzler) arrives in town, the summer heat is unbearable. He shambles in with a shirt full of sweat and a head full of instant cognition. He knows he must make the case for the vulnerable young school teacher to a jury made up of town's people, who have already decided his client's fate. To add to the mix, Director Geer cleverly selected ACLU members and representatives from Rochester legal firms to sit in as the jury and bear the brunt of the play: A dynamic clash of ideas between a literal reading of the Creation in the Bible and Darwin's Origin of the Species. Ironically the real time jury of legal peers has no say in the final verdict on stage. The decision is out of their hands, it's in the script. As everyone knows, the script is the theater's bible, subject to interpretation, one way or the other. What if the sit-in jury of legal peers voted against Brady and tossed the play to the wind? A theatrical dilemma, if there ever was one!
J.G. Hertzler's portrait of Henry Drummond rests its case on the lawyer's passionate, thinking zeal: a bull dog quality of going after the meat of the matter. Hertzler reveals Drummond's striking thinking and common sense, as the first line of defense against rigid and doctrinaire beliefs. The lawyer gives it his best shot to bring sanity back into the legal proceedings. But arguments for the schoolteacher's right to teach evolution will fall on deaf ears. And the judge (played with lock step rigidity by David Silberman) will repeatedly rap Drummond's objections to the court procedures down. So what else can Drummond do but put his rival, Matthew Harrison Brady, on the witness stand? Given the skewed nature of the court's proceedings, it is a logical decision – not just a mean spirited one – and that adds to the dimensions of the drama. He questions relentlessly Brady's severe doctrinaire beliefs in the literal interpretation of the Bible. Brady's shaky and desperate responses bring the play to its evolving climax. Brady is simply not the lawyer that Drummond is. He can only filibuster on the witness stand, weighted down by flagging energy into his ultimate collapse. Hertzler reveals, with genuine and tough compassion, the other side of Drummond's nature, His remarkable post mortem defense of Brady is the true and lasting measure of the play's worth; a humane statement about the human dimension involved. It is a saddened Henry Drummond who delivers these sharply edged lines to the columnist, E.K. Hornbeck, played with cavalier and cynical abruptness by J. Michael Riley:
There was much greatness in that man.
Shall I put that in the obituary?
Write anything you damn please…I'm getting damned tired of you, Hornbeck.
You never pushed a noun against a verb except to blow up something.
That's a typical lawyer's trick: accusing the accuser!
What am I accused of?
I charge you with contempt of conscience! Self-perjury. Kindness aforethought. Sentimentality in the first degree.
Why? Because I refuse to erase a man's lifetime? I tell you Brady had the same right as Cates: the right to be wrong!
A giant once lived in the body. (Quietly) But Matt Brady got lost. Because he was looking for God too high up and too far away.
Drummond picks up the Bible in one hand, and a copy of Darwin's Origin of the Species in the other. He weighs them and slaps them together in his briefcase side by side, then exits. A double entendre if there ever was one.