If the Scopes Monkey Trial was happening this summer instead of the summer of 1925, there would be tweeting from the Tennessee courthouse, live reports from telegenic Ken and Barbie dolls, shouting matches on cable “news” and enough election-year political haymaking to choke a horse. Even a century ago, pre-electronic and digital media, the trial of a schoolteacher charged with unlawfully teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution was a national sensation. America had a legal and moral stake in the outcome.
The gravity of the case was no less perceptible when Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s play Inherit the Wind, based on the Scopes trial, opened in 1955. The legendary courtroom combatants, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, became “Matthew Harrison Brady” and “Henry Drummond.” Lawrence and Lee’s play was faithful to their eloquence and to the circumstances that made Bryan and Darrow symbolic of something bigger than a battle of conscience and words over one man’s fate.
The Old Globe’s inclusion of Inherit the Wind in its summer Shakespeare Festival is understandable given the political scent in the wind. Moral righteousness is a staple of American discourse, the religious right a powerful player in elections, and intolerance a national pastime.
Adrian Sparks (as Brady) and Robert Foxworth (as Drummond) are towering adversaries in the Globe’s Inherit the Wind, directed by Adrian Noble. Sparks is booming and Bible-thumping, Foxworth sly and ornery. Each character boasts a noble heart, and it takes actors of Sparks’ and Foxworth’s caliber to bring that out in a play that is bursting with polemics and a little too fond of the small town yokelism.
Once the first-act setting up is out of the way, Inherit the Wind is hang-on-every-word fun, with Sparks and Foxworth at full-throated ideological war. Of the other principals, Joseph Marcell as newspaper reporter Hornbeck plays both philosophical sides against the middle in pursuit of good copy and does so with the arrogance of a modern-day media wag.
Inherit the Wind’s lessons are shouted from the Smoky Mountain top. But Sparks and Foxworth’s entreaties should echo in your thoughts throughout the long, hot summer.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat