"Inherit the Wind," the delightfully preachy 1955 play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee based on the famed 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, contains what may be the swiftest and most comical takedown of anti-intellectualism ever brought to the stage.
An ambitious co-production of the show by the Subversive Theatre Collective and the New Phoenix Theatre, directed by Subversive's Kurt Schneiderman, opened in the New Phoenix on Thursday night.
The key moment happens shortly after Matthew Harrison Brady (Greg Natale), the play's blustering, God-fearing prosecutor, lumbers up to the stand to be questioned by Henry Drummond (Gary Darling), his worthy adversary on the defense. The duo, modeled after Scopes Trial lawyers William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, go toe-to-toe for a while, but eventually Drummond wins the upper hand by asking Brady to dissect the finer points of the Book of Genesis.
Worn down to the point of outrage, Brady shouts, "I don't think about the things I don't think about!"
To which Drummond responds: "Do you think about the things you do think about?"
The answer, though it remains unspoken, is clearly no. And that is the tipping point, where the difference between "ignorance is bliss" and "knowledge is power" in the debate over evolution has never looked so stark. Such is the enduring power of this prescient play, shot through with so much piercing intellect and cutting comedy that its tendency to drag out the soapbox has to be forgiven.
The current political overtones of the play practically leap off the stage and smack us in the face, just as its historically literate authors intended. It's obvious that the debates of 1925, 1955 and 2011 are stunningly similar to one another. But in its essence, this potentially cynical play is in fact wildly optimistic because it views social progress as inexorable.
"Darwin took us forward to a hilltop from where we could look back and see the way from which we came," Drummond says in a statement many consider controversial even today. "But for this insight, and for this knowledge, we must abandon our faith in the pleasant poetry of Genesis."
This production, with a cast of 21, has plenty to recommend it. Any production of "Inherit the Wind," sinks or swims on the performances of Drummond and Brady, who take up the vast majority of the dialogue. They've been cast here with two wonderfully affable and capable actors in Natale and Darling.
But, as in most productions with which Subversive Theatre is involved, this one was woefully underrehearsed at the time of opening night, with actors frequently going up on their lines and the overall pace just short of stultifying. Exchanges between Natale and Darling that are meant to be scintillating and captivating instead veer toward the uncomfortable.
The most fully realized performances came from Richard Lambert, who played the world-weary, self-obsessed journalist E.K. Hornbeck (a stand-in for H.L. Mencken) to perfection, and Bryan Zybala, who gave an emotionally conflicted and fully credible performance as schoolteacher Bertram Cates.
The good news is that the talent is there and it's guaranteed to improve with age. I suspect by the time April rolls around -- closing night is April 16 -- the show will be in shipshape.
"Inherit the Wind"
3 stars (out of 4)
Drama presented by Subversive Theatre and New Phoenix Theatre through April 16 in the New Phoenix Theatre on the Park, 95 N. Johnson Park.
Tickets are $15 to $20. Call 853-1334 or visit www.newphoenixtheatre.org.