Dallas — On a stripped-down stage with a troupe of first-rate actors in contemporary clothes, director Kevin Moriarty delivers a sweeping, enlightening and finely nuanced production of Inherit the Wind, the fictional dramatization of the notorious 1925 Scopes “Monkey” trial when a Tennessee teacher was jailed for teaching Darwin’s Theory of Evolution to his pupils. The play, which was written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee and had its world premiere in Dallas at Margo Jones’ theater in 1955, remains an eloquent plea for scientific truth and the necessity for a democracy to encourage inquiring young minds, as opposed to accepting received truths, or “that old time religion,” without question.
And how timely considering Evolution education is still being challenged in Texas and elsewhere.
Part of the force of the Dallas Theater Center production is Moriarty’s casting of actors to play characters whose gender and race is different than the actor, adding an extra wallop to this bristling courtroom drama. We sit up and realign our expectations when the prosecution, headed by bible thumping and thrice-defeated presidential candidate Matthew Harrison Brady (Liz Mikel) is a commanding and instantly engaging African American woman.
Her opponent in court and in the small town where the trial takes place is famed Chicago lawyer Henry Drummond (Kieran Connolly), a tightly wound, white-haired Anglo-Saxon man with piercing blue eyes and brilliant comic timing when it comes to interrogating even hostile witnesses.
The stark proscenium stage at the Kalita Humphries Theater is empty, except for the white-washed walls with black graffiti demanding, "Read your Bible,” and a graphic of a monkey back-stabbed by a cross. Following a disarming opening in which cast members speak directly to the audience about their own experience as kids learning science in the Bible Belt, the excellent, diverse 16-member cast enters, carrying chairs and creating a dark diagonal line of defense or an equally inescapable circle.
The play is afoot, and we don’t need a jail cell or a courtroom, a grassy lawn or a set that shouts “Main Street America!” to get to the heart of the matter in this play.
Mikel’s Brady is loquacious and full of the kind of swelling confidence of those who feel God speaks directly to them. When Brady enters the town to the applause of the townspeople, she smiles with the certainty of the anointed and lifts her arms in an encircling embrace. Throughout the play, Mikel pulls her adherents close to her by leading them in hymns rich with tradition. They sing “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Onward Christian Soldiers” with the ardent zeal of true believers.
When the hell-fire-and-brimstone preacher Rev. Jeremiah Brown (Vince McGill, gathering force as he stalks the circle) condemns his own daughter (delicately beauteous Tia Laulusa) for her defense of her fellow teacher Bert Cates (a virile, brainy Ace Anderson), Mikel’s Brady is a peace-seeking humanitarian. Brady cautions the angry Reverend by quoting the proverbial truth that “he who troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind,” or come to nothing, as indicated in the play’s foreboding title.
Connolly’s Drummond arrives on the scene with clear-eyed purpose, his jacket loose and his arguments tight as a drum. One of the many delights of the show is watching Drummond’s dogged persistence in the face of a fundamentalist mindset, evident in the quiet resetting of his jaw. The judge (a narrow-eyed Pam Dougherty) won’t admit “expert evidence” from scientists, so Drummond puts his opponent Brady on the stand as a “biblical expert” and proceeds to fire the play’s best comic lines at the nonsense of biblical literalism.
Mikel’s meltdown on the witness stand is touching and inevitable. Her Brady is all cockiness at the outset, as she replies to Drummond’s questions about the geologic age of the earth. “I’m more interested in the Rock of Ages than I am in the age of rocks,” she says, rolling her eyes to the delight of her fans in court.
But as the relentless defense attorney attacks the “who begat who” and the nature of received truth itself, Mikel’s Brady begins to fold into her own cape, evoking a profound pity when her “biblical truths” are unmoored. Humiliated and torn, Brady turns to her loyal wife (a quietly faithful Akin Babatunde), who she calls Mother, and the battered souls sing a prayerful hymn in a wrenching attempt to overcome the blow.
Connolly’s Drummond is the most attractive when confronting the cynical and self-proclaimed “great journalist” E. K. Hornbeck (a recklessly arrogant Alex Organ), who mocks Brady as a ridiculous political stumper and also-ran. We see in Drummond’s succinct dismissal of the sarcastic media “critic,” a human respect for a worthy opponent whose right to his own views the lawyer defends, along with those of his client.
The evening flies by on the wings of an inspired ensemble performance. Inherit the Wind is a superb dramatic reminder that truth is not just a loose term to be dumped for some idiotic “alternative reality.” Words are much more than sudden, mindless Tweets. Words and sentences are constructs that we all labor honestly to agree on, and that hold meaning for us as a society, locally and globally. We want to leave our children and grandchildren an earth of beauty and variety, not just an empty wind blowing across a desolate planet. Our concerns for defending judicial and environmental truths are even more urgent today than when the play was written.