Dallas — Dallas Theater Center’s new production of Inherit the Wind, which was directed by Margo Jones in its world premiere in Dallas in January 1955, resonates with social and theatrical history.
The play, written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, opened on Broadway in April 1955, and has been through numerous revivals on stage. Margo Jones jumped at the chance to stage its world premiere after it was discovered by her friend, Dallas Civic Theatre investor and literary scout Jean Baptiste "Tad" Adoue III (son of Jean Baptiste Adoue II, mayor of Dallas in 1951-53), who met Lawrence and Lee in Malibu, California, and asked to see some of their plays. After reading Inherit the Wind, he sent it to Jones in Dallas and wrote “I double-dog dare you to produce this. Will take GUTS to do this in the bible belt,” as documented in Helen Sheehy’s biography Margo: The Life and Theatre of Margo Jones. It opened at her Theatre ’55 (she changed the name of theater with each year, beginning with Theatre ’47, and so on). The play had already been rejected by eight Broadway producers, but after Jones' production, it was snatched up.
There have been several major screen adaptations of the play, a fictionalized account of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” trial in Dayton, Tenn., featuring brilliant lawyers defending teaching Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in a high school class, as opposed to the creation story in Genesis. These include the 1960 film starring Spencer Tracy and Frederick March (produced by one of the men who rejected the original script for Broadway), and the 1999 television film starring Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott. The story clearly remains compelling.
Kevin Moriarty, the artistic director of Dallas Theater Center—which can now use the modifier “Tony-winning,” as it’s receiving the Regional Theater Tony Award this year—is directing the DTC production, which is now in previews at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, opening Friday, May 26. We talked to him about his updated, color-conscious and gender-blind production of a play important to Dallas’ history.
TheaterJones: Why is Inherit the Wind an important play for your audience at this time?
Kevin Moriarty: Inherit the Wind explores the complicated relationship between objective facts and personal beliefs. It asks how our country can advance if facts are censored, denied or outlawed. It cries out for freedom of ideas and encourages a robust, honest, respectful public dialogue about important ideas. In a world of “alternate facts,” increasing polarization and the continued push to make some ideas illegal or off-limits, Inherit the Wind is deeply relevant and speaks to all of us.
How does casting of the production figure into your interpretation of the play?
Inherit the Wind was written in 1955, and tells a story inspired by the historical events of the Scopes Monkey Trial that originally took place in 1925. But in their notes on the play, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee specifically state that, “Inherit the Wind does not pretend to be journalism. It is theatre. It is not 1925. The stage directions set the time as ‘Not too long ago.’ It might have been yesterday. It could be tomorrow.” When I read that instruction from the writers, it was clear that their concerns were about how the events of the past could resonate with their modern audience. In 1955, their concerns included the stifling effects of McCarthyism and the rigid conformity of the mid-1950’s.
So if the play is not history, and could equally occur yesterday or tomorrow, then it seemed to me that having the actors who are playing the roles reflect the community that will see the play would allow the ideas to lift off the page and not get mired in a soothing nostalgia or reduce the audience’s experience to simply watching a power struggle among white men that occurred nearly 100 years ago. The play is bigger than that and is a story for and about all of us, not just some of us.
So we have cast both men and women in leading roles and actors of various races and ethnicities throughout the cast. The text, story and characters are unaltered, but the pool of actors allowed to tell the story has been expanded. For instance, Liz Mikel, an African-American woman, is playing the leading role of Matthew Harrison Brady, opposite Michael Connolly, a white man, in the role of Henry Drummond. They’re both highly skilled members of our acting company and their voices bring fresh life to Lawrence and Lee’s stunning writing.
In a highly realistic production of Inherit the Wind, with heavy, naturalistic scenery, this casting might be distracting or confusing to an audience, but our production has a stripped-down design; the set is all white, the actors use few props, the various locations are created quickly, seamlessly and abstractly by reconfiguring a small number of chairs and tables; the actors are dressed in simple, neutral, contemporary clothing. In this context, the gender and race of the actors doesn’t need to mirror those of the characters any more than the set needs to literally represent a courtroom.
This not only allows for wider and more inclusive representation on stage, it also invites the audience to lean in to the play, to listen more intently and to be more fully engaged with Lawrence and Lee’s writing, which carries such power that it doesn’t need to rely on layers of early 20th century naturalism.
The play is a highly confrontational dramatization of a famous historical social conflict. What is alike about the social divide then and now in our country? How do you reflect that in your production?
The play speaks powerfully to our current political climate. We are still debating the role of facts, science, religion, truth and freedom of expression in our country today. Frankly, we haven’t needed to do much in our production to make this clear to our audiences: the words and events of the play leap off the page with such passion and relevance on their own. Though written more than 60 years ago, they sound as if they were written today.
What aspect, if any, of the show do you find universal for all human societies?
Freedom of thought is essential for humanity to advance. The greatest gift God gives humans is the ability to think. There will always be leaders who use fear to mobilize disenfranchised groups of people to stifle the freedom of others and limit what is allowed to be discussed and explored; in a free, just society, this must be resisted.
What feeling or message do you want audiences to walk away with after seeing this production of Inherit the Wind?
I hope audiences fall in love with this play as much as I love it. I hope they marvel at its theatricality, empathize with its complicated, rich characters, and appreciate its enduring relevance.