John Douglas Thompson and Alfred Molina in Inherit the Wind
If youâ€™re going to leave the Canyon for something worthy of the drive, donâ€™t miss Pasadena Playhouseâ€™s brilliant contemporary adaptation of Inherit the Wind. Itâ€™s just been extended but it will end on December 3 â€“ so hurry!
Some are too young to remember references to â€śthe Scopes monkey trialâ€ť that took place in 1925 when high school biology teacher John Scopes broke Tennessee law (The Butler Act) prohibiting the teaching of Darwinism when he read aloud to his students a chapter about human evolution that was in an authorized textbook. A media circus ensued when the two biggest legal names in the nation, William Jennings Bryan, a fervent Presbyterian whoâ€™d run three times for President, took the case for the prosecution, and renowned lawyer and agnostic Clarence Darrow handled the defense.
The proceedings were broadcast nationwide on radio. Who would win: the fundamentalists who believe the â€śword of Godâ€ť in the Bible supersedes all human knowledge, or the â€śimmoral free thinkersâ€ť who believe that evolution can be consistent with religion?
In response to the stifling of intellectual discourse during the McCarthy era, playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee penned Inherit the Wind based on the trial. First produced onstage in 1955, it was later adapted for film and television in 1960, 1965, 1988 and 1999.To say itâ€™s proven its staying power, even as conservative extremists attempt to hijack our body politic today, is an understatement.
Pasadena Playhouse has created a masterful modern-day interpretation with the original script tweaked only slightly. Two stage giants hold the key roles: John Douglas Thompson as Matthew Brady (Bryan) and Alfred Molina as Henry Drummond (Darrow). Most of the other actors appear in multiple roles and all are unquestionably excellent. The staging is contemporary: a stripped-down production with street clothes for costumes, bare bones set, a jury box in the front row made up of audience members, while risers at stage left hold courtroom observers, no decorative elements needed. While the language has aged a bit, itâ€™s still powerfully affecting.
Inherit the Wind cast Thomas Hobson, Michael Kostroff, John Douglas Thompson, Marlene Forte, Pam Trotter, Gabriella Pizzigoni, David Aaron Baker, and Rachel Hilson in a Hallelujah moment.
The language is quite Shakespearean; Brady is full of brimstone and furious faith; the Reverend Brown (David Aaron Baker) gets so wound up heâ€™s willing to damn his own daughter, Rachel (Rachel Hilson) to hell; itâ€™s Brady who talks him down. Rachel is a fellow teacher at Bert Catesâ€™s (Abubakr Ali), school and in love with him â€“ heâ€™s the defendant who committed the unpardonable sin of believing he could think freely. After a student drowned and the church and community condemned the boyâ€™s soul to hell (though it wasnâ€™t his fault he was unbaptized), Bert left the church.
Thereâ€™s also a media â€ścriticâ€ť in town to observe the events as they unfold, since his newspaper is paying for the defense. E.K. Hornbeck (Chris Perfetti) is chock full of snarky phrases (the town is â€śthe buckle on the Bible Belt,â€ť) and when Rachel calls him a cynic, he responds: â€śI do hateful things, for which people love me, and lovable things for which they hate me. I am the friend of enemies, the enemy of friends. I am admired for my detestability.â€ť Going against the townâ€™s opinion, he writes a column making Bert out to be a hero.
The build-up to Bradyâ€™s arrival in this backwater is highlighted by a red-carpet welcome, including the Mayor (Michael Kostroff) awarding him the title of temporary Honorary Colonel in the State Militia. Thereâ€™s a huge banner on the wall that says â€śRead Your Bible.â€ť The townsfolk are all in favor of Brady and condemn Bert.
The fireworks take place in the second act in the courtroom, where Rachel is too choked up to give the testimony against Bert that Brady manipulated her into sharing before the trial. But Drummond is too smart to let the utterly biased proceedings stop him. After calling on townspeople for their testimony and calling out the Judge (Rene Rivera) for overruling him every time he tries to raise a defense using scientists (â€śWe do not deny the existence of these sciences: but they do not relate to this point of law.â€ť), Drummond puts Brady himself on the stand.
Drilling down into Bradyâ€™s knowledge of the Bible and watching him fumble answers, Drummond finally gets him to admit that maybe not everything it says is completely true. And it destroys him. But Drummond is gracious in acknowledging the man whom he once called friend. â€śA giant once lived in that body. But Matt Brady got lost. Because he was looking for God too high up and too far away.â€ť
Inherit the Wind is directed by Michael Michetti. Tickets are at or by calling (626) 356-7529.
Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for print and online publications.