When I was in high school in the '50s, I spent hours alone in my room reading "Inherit the Wind" aloud. Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's play, set in a fundamentalist town 70 years ago where a school teacher has had the temerity to discuss Darwin, celebrated intellectual audacity at a time when conformity was paramount. For a child who knew he was a little eccentric, it was thrilling.
I was looking forward to the National Actors Theater production of the play, if only because it has personal associations for Tony Randall, NAT'S founder, who was in the original cast.
With a few exceptions, notably that of George C. Scott, who brings ferocious power to the role based on Clarence Darrow, John Tillinger's production of the play is a huge disappointment.
In order for the play to work, you have to believe that Drummond, the Darrow character, will actually face a formidable opponent in the court battle over the teaching of evolution that is the play's main action. His foe, Matthew Harrison Brady, based on William Jennings Bryan, the thrice-failed candidate for President, should suggest a ruined giant. Drummond himself says Brady was once a titan.
Charles Durning, however, plays Brady like a bumpkin politician. There is no feeling that he was ever a titan. If he's just a rustic blowhard, it's hard to imagine why a Baltimore newspaper feels it should hire a big gun like Drummond to battle him.
Worst of all is the large crowd, which comports itself as if it were the star. They play the townspeople like clowns and rubes. Their improvised babblings are so loud that sometimes you cannot hear what the featured actors in the foreground are saying.
The only times you see how powerful the play could be are those when Scott is onstage. From his first entrance, his leonine profile unmistakable in the shadows, he dominates the proceedings.
His voice is craggy, he sometimes seems not to have enough breath to finish a sentence, but everything he says carries the weight of Drummond's fierce intelligence and passion. This is the kind of force you need to bring ideas alive on the stage.
There are credible performances by some of the others, notably Tom Aldredge as the local pastor, Herndon Lackey as Brady's co-counsel and Michael Lombard as the judge. Garret Dillahunt's movie-star looks are not right for the nervous school teacher, but he portrays him convincingly. Anthony Heald does an uncharacteristic amount of posturing as the cynical reporter.
Even James Noone's set is a distraction, though Jess Goldstein's costumes work well.
The play deserved far, far better.
At long last Tony Randall's National Actors Theater has a production that deserves to be a hit. It's John Tillinger's crisp, handsome, very entertaining revival of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's "Inherit the Wind," which opened last night at the Royale Theater with George C. Scott and Charles Durning in the seductively actable leading roles.
Not since its 1993 production of "Timon of Athens" has Mr. Randall's company seemed to be on such firm ground. This "Inherit the Wind" is big and fully inhabited, not only by its two stars and supporting players, but also by its nearly two dozen extras identified in the program as "townspeople, jurors, scientists, etc." You haven't seen so many etceteras on one stage since your last Passion Play. There's also a monkey.
That's not the only surprise.
The courtroom drama itself, though it's not exactly "Saint Joan," remains as pertinent and theatrically satisfying today as it must have been when it first arrived on Broadway 41 years ago. The source material is rich: one of the most colorful and briefly riveting of the trials of the century that seemed to be especially abundant in the sensation-loving 1920's. It's the so-called "monkey trial" of 1925, when John T. Scopes, a biology teacher in Dayton, Tenn., was charged with having broken the state statute barring the teaching in public schools of Darwin's theories of evolution. The prosecution summoned William Jennings Bryan, beloved orator, the Democractic Party's three-time unsuccessful Presidential nominee, an idealistic naif nearing the end of a long and illustrious career. At the suggestion of the American Civil Liberties Union, the defense was headed by Clarence Darrow, notorious for representing clients no godly man would touch: socialists, strikers and, most recently, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the Chicago "thrill" killers.
There was no doubt about Scopes's guilt and, considering the time and place, not much doubt about the trial's outcome. There was only the opportunity to question the constitutionality of the law. Sound dull? Not as the press played it up.
The story of the trial was given the same razzle-dazzle treatment received by Floyd Collins, the unfortunate fellow who became famous for being trapped in a Kentucky cave five months earlier. Reporters from all over the nation and abroad landed in Dayton. Believers came also. There were souvenirs to be bought and prayer meetings to attend. The Dayton economy boomed.
Here was a headline-making heavyweight bout between the rational thought of a newly rational age and old-fashioned Christian fundamentalism, which was deemed to be on its last legs, though today it's alive and well and called Creationism. The term "monkey trial" perfectly expressed the tone of the press coverage.
Yet it doesn't adequately express the tone of "Inherit the Wind," which somehow manages to avoid the condescension of a work that preaches to the converted. The playwrights assume that audiences share their Darwinism; they make much sport of attempts to defend the belief that the world was created at 9 A.M. on Oct. 23, 4004 B.C. At the same time they realize that legislation against virtually any idea, no matter how ridiculous, is as indefensible as the Tennessee statute against the teaching of evolution (which wasn't repealed until 1967).
With wit and a lot of expertise, Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Lee (who died in 1994) take the essentials of the true story and turn it into Broadway fiction. This, I assume, permits them to make a rounded theater piece that would otherwise have had historians on their backs. The Darrow character is now called Henry Drummond (Mr. Scott) and Bryan is Matthew Harrison Brady (Mr. Durning). The time of the play is identified as "not too long ago," though the costumes and set design clearly place it in the 1920's.
"Inherit the Wind" effectively reflects the principal events in the trial by turning it into a war to the death between the two powerhouse lawyers. At the beginning, Mr. Durning's Brady is all self-assured, folksy charm. Though grossly overweight, he can never resist another home-made pickle, apple pie or plateful of potato salad, presented to him by attentive housewives. It's July and the Tennessee sun is hot. As the courtroom principals strip down to their shirtsleeves and galluses, Brady watches with satisfaction as the jury is packed with his God-fearing admirers.
Mr. Scott's Drummond is laid back, patient, occasionally sarcastic. He's a stocky, barrel-chested man who shows his age, but appears to be waiting to explode. He keeps his cool even as, one after another, his expert witnesses are denied the right to testify. No scientific testimony is allowed. The defense is being steamrollered until Drummond changes his tactics. Having received permission to put on the stand a witness expert in the teachings of the Bible, he calls Brady, who accepts. The scene that follows is the play's coup de theatre.
This confrontation between two formidable, agile minds gives "Inherit the Wind" its dramatic life, but only when you have actors of the grandly theatrical heft of Mr. Durning and Mr. Scott playing the roles. "Inherit the Wind" is finally far less about the ideas themselves than about the destruction of a man of 19th-century America by someone who represents the 20th, and who may not be quite sure what that means.
Mr. Scott and Mr. Durning are individually fine and well matched in Mr. Tillinger's production, which, though big and elaborate, is so beautifully orchestrated that it never upstages the performances.
Chief among the estimable supporting players: Anthony Heald as E. K. Hornbeck, the H. L. Mencken-like journalist who is the play's wisecracking chorus (the role played by Mr. Randall in the original production); Garret Dillahunt as the biology teacher-defendant, overwhelmed by the events he initiated; Kate Forbes as the young woman who loves him, and Tom Aldredge as the local preacher who has old-time religion to burn.
The impressive physical production, designed by James Noone and lighted by Ken Billington, appears to embrace the entire teeming town, which, in turn, embraces the courtroom. The play's single intermission is treated as if it were a court recess. The characters drift back onto the stage in various attitudes of boredom, fatigue, thought and high spirits. The drama resumes, its tension unbroken.
Good work by all.
Looking for all the world like a latter-day Lionel Barrymore, George C. Scott handily dominates the stage of the Royale Theater with the firepower of a genuine star determined to light up an otherwise lackluster universe. Tony Randall had great hopes for his National Actors Theater production of "Inherit the Wind," in the 1955 premiere of which he himself had played a major role. What's onstage, however - Scott's charismatic performance aside - is at best a wan revival, sabotaged by some key staging and casting missteps.
Chief among them is the casting of Charles Durning as Matthew Harrison Brady opposite Scott's Henry Drummond. The roles were based on the perennial presidential hopeful William Jennings Bryan and his ideological nemesis, lawyer Clarence Darrow, in Lawrence and Lee's fictionalized account of their showdown at the 1925 Scopes "Monkey" Trial in Dayton, Tenn.
In a confrontation that remains all too familiar, the right of a teacher to introduce Darwin's theory of evolution had come smack up against a community's insistence that anything deviating from Scripture was evil, the work of the devil.
Drummond and Brady were originated on Broadway by Paul Muni and Ed Begley, respectively; in Stanley Kramer's superb 1960 film they were played by Spencer Tracy and Fredric March. In both cases, the actors were equals, portraying men whose friendship has long since turned to animosity yet who still retain a grudging admiration for each other. But Durning's soft, tentative Brady is no match for Scott's inspired Drummond.
Brady here seems slow, winded and defeated from the outset, and so the play is robbed of its power to electrify. (That Durning was struggling with his lines at the performance was no help, either.)
Other choices also work against John Tillinger's staging. James Noone's stolid downfront courtroom setting forces the actors to shout from the far reaches of the Royale during the play's first half hour -- making it virtually impossible for any character to be established. Most hurt by this is the very fine Anthony Heald, playing E.K. Hornbeck (Randall in the Broadway original; Gene Kelly in the film), the acerbic Baltimore journalist modeled on H.L. Mencken. For much of the evening, Heald struggles with the echo, but he comes into his own in the production's most crackling exchange, between Drummond and Hornbeck after Brady's demise. It is, unfortunately, also the last scene.
But I can't remember another time when I wished a play had been staged at Scott's more familiar stomping ground, Circle in the Square. "Inherit the Wind" was first staged at Margo Jones' tiny theater-in-the-round in Dallas. What's missing here -- and what Kramer so effectively captured in the tightly shot film -- was the intense claustrophobia and choking heat of the setting, the barely contained violence this conflict engendered.
The play has been changed from three acts to two, and clocks in at just over a brisk two hours. It feels compressed, though whether this is the result of text trims is unclear. Whatever the case, a play that should literally knock the wind out of us has been reduced to a harmless squall that even Scott's daunting ministrations cannot salvage.