Thursday, November 8, 2018

A Mighty Inherit the Wind Blows at Lakewood

Ian Goodrich, Olivia Weiss, Jim Vadala, and Allen Nause.
Photo by Triumph Photography.

By Tina Arth

November 6, 2018 – what better day to reflect on a play that explores a time when American history was roiled by the 6-way collision of science, fundamentalist religion, education, politics, law, and the press? Lakewood Theatre Company’s production of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s brilliant Inherit the Wind, first produced in 1955 as a direct reaction to the McCarthy hearings, propels us back to a time and place that, until recently, we thought we had left behind.

The play tells the semi-fictional story of Bertram Cates, a teacher in Hillsboro, Tennessee who is on trial for the crime of teaching evolutionary theory to his students.  While it is based on actual historic events (1925’s famous Scopes trial, in Dayton Tennessee) the names have been changed and the story modified to more explicitly make its point about the McCarthy era’s relentless attempts to suppress free speech, thought, and a free press.  Appearing for the defense and prosecution are well-known lawyers Henry Drummond (based on Clarence Darrow) and Matthew Harrison Brady (based on William Jennings Bryan), brought in to raise the trial to national attention as one of a handful of cases labeled a “trial of the century.” The drama is heightened by the presence of Cates’ girlfriend, fellow teacher Rachel Brown, whose father Jeremiah Brown is the heartlessly stern reverend of the local fundamentalist church. The trial ends with a Pyrrhic victory for Bryan – Cates is convicted, but in the process Darrow demolishes Brady’s arguments and sets the stage to move the debate to a national audience on appeal, while Rachel rejects her father’s blindly rigid faith and chooses to align her self squarely in the Cates camp.

The leading lawyers provide dream roles for serious actors, and director Antonio Sonera could not have chosen better than Allen Nause (Drummond) and Todd Van Voris (Brady) to fill these giant shoes. The contrast between Nause’s restrained, fiercely sardonic expression of agnosticism and the crowd-pleasing, bombastic histrionics of Van Voris’ creationist rants drives the story to its inevitable conclusion. Nause uses comic timing as a weapon to disembowel his adversary’s biblical literalism, and Van Voris smoothly injects into his absolute certainty a few moments of thinly veiled doubt when confronted with Reverend Brown’s unconscionably harsh brand of Christianity.

Another key battle in the show is between Rachel and her father. While David Sikking’s take on Reverend Brown could have been even fierier, Olivia Weiss’ approach as Rachel is heartbreaking, and vividly illustrates the cruelty of her father’s harsh world-view. The ensemble, especially when singing (there are a surprising number of hymns interspersed throughout the show), augments the picture by demonstrating Brown’s almost hypnotic power over many in the crowd. While the leads demand most of the audience’s attention, it is fascinating to watch the reactions of individual ensemble members at key moments as they respond to Brown, Brady, and Drummond’s arguments with varying degrees of blind faith and cautious hints of dissent.

John Gerth’s scenic design is really quite stunning. The use of rear projection for the town of Hillsboro, with a rustic foreground that can serve as a jail, town square, or courtroom by just shifting a few pieces of furniture, easily enables the audience to follow shifts in locale without time lost to extensive set changes – the most complex shift, erecting bleachers for the jury, happily happens at intermission.

While it would be unduly naïve to think that conflicts between religious faith and scientific logic will ever find a completely happy middle ground, it is still shocking in 2018 to see how little progress has been made in some large segments of American society. As Drummond says, with eerily prophetic accuracy, “You don’t suppose this kind of thing is ever finished, do you?” For this reason alone, Inherit the Wind has earned its iconic place in theater – but Sonera’s staging of the show at Lakewood is rife with fine performances, humor, and subtle touches that make it fine theater independent of the message.

Inherit the Wind is playing at the Lake Oswego’s Lakewood Center for the Arts through Sunday, December 9th.

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