In the closing scene of “Inherit the Wind,” defense attorney Henry Drummond warns, “You don’t suppose this kind of thing is ever finished, do you?” That line points up the already evident truth in this half-century-old nugget of robust Americana — that fundamentalism of any kind breeds, and continues to breed, closed-minded bigotry, constituting a threat to freedom of thought and the circulation of ideas. But even without its ample contemporary parallels, Doug Hughes’ dynamic production would be crackling entertainment, enlivened by the vigorous verbal sparring of two great lions of the stage, Brian Dennehy and Christopher Plummer.
Like the Broadway revival two seasons back of “Twelve Angry Men,” Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s play is a sterling example of the best of mid-’50s American drama, with its rock-solid construction, incisively drawn characters and unequivocally liberal-leaning moral lucidity. It’s also a prime specimen of a breed of compelling courtroom drama now usurped by television in “Law & Order” and its procedural imitators.
Written in response to the anti-communist hysteria of the McCarthy witch hunts and the resultant shadow cast on intellectual freedom, “Inherit the Wind” follows the outline of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial in Dayton, Tenn., in which high school biology teacher John T. Scopes was charged with violating a state statute by sharing Darwin’s theories of evolution with his students.
The playwrights made no attempt to disguise the real-life models for their key characters. Compassionate agnostic Drummond (Plummer) was a direct portrait of Clarence Darrow, a leading figure of the American Civil Liberties Union and a legal Goliath known for taking on politically touchy cases. A repeat presidential candidate and devout Bible scholar, prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady (Dennehy) was the doppelganger of William Jennings Bryan. Spearheading the media circus that invades the God-fearing town of Hillsboro is cynical Baltimore newspaperman E.K. Hornbeck (Denis O’Hare), based on H.L. Mencken.
Hughes deftly establishes the small-town climate of unswerving, plainspoken faith by planting a traditional white Gospel quartet on the upper deck of Santo Loquasto’s stately wooden courtroom bleachers, which also house a large chunk of the audience, doubling as trial spectators and jury. (Loquasto also did the unfussy period costumes.) In a pre-show performance and at intervals throughout the play, the singers, accompanying themselves on banjo and guitar, deliver rousing renditions of religious anthems like “Down by the Riverside” and “I Shall Not Be Moved,” as well as the anti-Darwin ditty “You Can’t Make a Monkey Out of Me.”
From that folksy warm-up, the staging makes a striking shift to a dramatic opening that evokes both the McCarthy era and the most famous theatrical allegory for that historical chapter, Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” The ensemble enters through a wide central corridor and remains caught, tableau-like, in the chilling pool of Brian MacDevitt’s light until the characters step forth, one or two at a time, to begin their role in the story.
The atmosphere then cranks up another notch when excitable preacher Rev. Brown (Byron Jennings) unfurls a “Read Your Bible” banner across the courthouse, kickstarting a frenzy of commercial activity from hot dog and lemonade vendors to rooms for rent and Bible sales. The start of the trial also brings out the protesters, bearing signs that read “Take Back America for Christ” and “The One Great Evil Is Evil-ution.”
Bracing and vivid, this muscular start sets the tone for a remarkably brisk production, condensed from the original three acts to two, clocking in at a pithy two hours with no adverse signs of compression.
Dennehy gets a celebratory entrance, with Brady ushered into town as the savior come to protect folks from “the blasphemies of science.” A national hero of the conservative religious right, the stout, smiling politician laps up the praise and dives into the welcome buffet. His ability to milk a photo opportunity likely would please Karl Rove. Fredric March went for melodramatic zealotry in the 1960 Stanley Kramer film, but Dennehy underplays Brady’s fanaticism, never losing sight of his well-meaning humanity. While the play takes a firm stand against the prosecutor’s rigid refusal even to consider opposing views, the actor never condescends to his character.
That dignified treatment plays into the basic respect maintained by Plummer’s Drummond for his ideological opponent, even as he shoots down his dogmatic assertions.
Despite Brady’s oratorical windiness, Drummond is the juicier role, and Plummer is magnificent. A crusty old man with his pants hitched up high, he has a wry sense of humor, a calmly confronting, irreverent style and zero tolerance for the unbending absolutism that set the trial in motion. Plummer adds his own layers of wily intelligence to the character’s, his timing sharp as a tack. His delivery of Drummond’s speech about the wonder of the individual human mind (“An idea is a greater monument than a cathedral”) is a stirring display by an actor still at the peak of his considerable powers.
The play reaches its sustained crescendo in the gripping courtroom faceoff between the two men when, having stood by helplessly as his expert scientific witnesses have all been ruled irrelevant, Drummond puts Brady on the stand to examine the authority of the Bible. As Brady grows progressively more flustered and crumbles under Drummond’s fiery attack, the drama yields an unexpectedly nuanced conclusion in which the defense attorney’s thoughtful response advocates openness while avoiding preachiness. Drummond’s wordless final action, involving the Bible and Darwin’s “Origin of the Species,” still carries emotional heft.
Plummer and Dennehy are given colorful backup by O’Hare, who brings an enjoyable hint of Bert Lahr and even Groucho Marx to jaded quipster Hornbeck, a showy role originated by Tony Randall on Broadway in 1955 and played by Gene Kelly in the Kramer film.
Jennings seems a little low-key at first as the fervent preacher but fires up during his prayer meeting. As Scopes stand-in Bert Cates and Rachel, the reverend’s daughter who loves him, Benjamin Walker and Maggie Lacey, respectively, could make stronger impressions. But even if the large ensemble doesn’t always rise to the level of the formidable leads, this is a corker of a revival and a warhorse still charged with vitality, wit and wisdom, smartly tapped into America’s past and present.