ANDERSON, Ind. — Creationism versus evolution. That was the issue ostensibly at the crux of the 1925 Scopes trial, which found John Scopes guilty of breaking the law by teaching evolution in his Tennessee classroom.
The issue was, of course, a larger one — in essence, the freedom to think. It is that story upon which Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee loosely based their play, “Inherit the Wind,” in 1955, in response to McCarthyism.
The Anderson Mainstage Theatre masterfully brings the drama to the stage beginning tonight, provocatively posing a question that remains truly relevant in a society coping with a growing complex of conflicts driven by corporate and government ideologies at the expense of personal freedoms.
Director David Whicker has a strong cast of characters, portrayed with authority on a stage very simply set with the few accoutrements it needs to suggest the courtroom where the main action takes place. Female cast members sport the flowery dresses and hats of the ‘50s, while the men wear bowties and suspenders if not the overalls of farm workers.
The story is set in the small Southern town of Hillsboro, described by newsman E.K. Hornbeck, as “the bubble on the Bible belt.” The sardonic Hornbeck has come to Hillsboro from Baltimore to cover the proceedings. The character, based on H.L. Mencken, was perfectly cast in Andrew Persinger, who oozed the part with his almost-evil smile and spot-on, well-articulated cynicism. Dressed in the flashy suit and hat of the city, he draws out a flask from time to time as he observes courtroom proceedings.
The battle that Hornbeck is there to observe is fought on the fundamentalist side by three-time presidential candidate Matthew Harrison Brady, played by Steve Sharkey. The character of the fundamentalist orator is based on William Jennings Bryan, and Sharkey convincingly portrays Brady as an intelligent man and winning speaker who tenaciously adheres to fundamentalist views, but is ultimately forced to face his own compromise.
Ronnie Johnstone takes on the role of opposing attorney, the famous Henry Drummond, based on Clarence Darrow. Johnstone plays the part of the smart, folksy Drummond to a tee. Drummond seeks to defend a naïve but ultimately committed Bertram Cates, based on Scopes, played by Gabriel Porch. Drummond’s premise rests on the progressive idea, if you will, that the right to think should preempt blind adherence to fundamentalist dogma. Drummond, too, is ultimately shown to be compromised in his own right, setting more value on the truth and on intellectual freedom than perhaps on his own personal religious beliefs.
The pair butt heads throughout the hearings, several times erupting into riveting, raucous arguments, moderated by a judge (Ralph Sipes) who disallows every opposition witness Drummond seeks to bring to the stand. Early on in the play, a banner proclaiming “Read Your Bible” is raised and it hovers over the stage throughout the rest of the drama.
Rachel Brown, played by Aleia Short, is torn by her love for Cates and the teachings and authoritarianism of her father, the town’s preacher Rev. Jeremiah Brown. Roland VanHorn makes the perfect Rev. Brown, dressed in his white suit from head to toe, with a dark shirt underneath. During the quintessential prayer meeting, VanHorn closes his eyes as he thunders his prayer into a crescendo while believers proclaim in a frenzy along with him. One of them, Elijah, erupts, “Tell us, are we good?”
There is not a weak performance in the cast, from the glistening tear on Rachel’s face to the innocent, barefooted testimony of young Howard, played by Silas Morton.
Anderson is privileged to have this caliber of acting in its community theater, and to be offered such a timely, provocative work as “Inherit the Wind.” It was just a few weeks ago that an Illinois teacher faced disciplinary action for informing his students of their constitutional rights. Kudos to Mainstage for presenting this compelling drama that asks more of us than to merely watch, but to exercise that freedom to think.
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