BWW Review: Powerful and Unexpectedly Timely INHERIT THE WIND
Ocean State Theatre Company Artistic Director Amiee Turner introduced Friday night's production of INHERIT THE WIND by saying that she was somewhat surprised and saddened that a play about what's appropriate to teach in public schools, written in 1955 but based on events of the 1920's, is still so timely today. Indeed, this script may be a Baby Boomer, but this production isn't showing its age at all, and is scarily relevant. One of the biggest tells of an older play is often the length, and this script may have been edited down a bit, but the pacing is absolutely perfect. Director Fred Sullivan Jr. fills the moments of brief set changes with appropriate moments of song, which may seem like an odd choice for a play of this nature, but it works perfectly. Some of the songs are in the original script, but a few seem to have been added for this show. The songs also give the actors a chance to trot out their vocal chops including men singing in four part harmony, and violin and ukulele performances.
The play is based on the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, where a high school teacher was arrested for teaching evolution. The case was tried by Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, and drew much national attention as Darrow essentially put the bible on trial and proved that it could not be taught literally. This play stays true to the facts of the case, but is embellished for dramatic purposes and the names are changed. In this version, the two lawyers are named Henry Drummond and Matthew Harrison Brady. Aside from that detail, the story follows the true facts fairly closely.
The two leads--Tom Gleadow as Henry Drummond and Brandon Whitehead as Matthew Harrison Brady do a fantastic job. Tom Gleadow must be exhausted at the end of every performance, because he left everything on that stage. He has the bombast of a passionate lawyer, but the quieter moments is when he really shines. He sees the bigger picture and the importance of the trial, and he has no intention of letting go until he wins, even as the judge denies him the right to call witnesses and the townspeople grow increasingly hostile. Gleadow owns every scene he's in, and he and Whitehead have a sizzling back and forth that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
Whitehead is also excellent, if a bit more subdued. He is fawned over by the townspeople who frequently chant "If it's good enough for Brady, it's good enough for me!", but manages to come off a little humble, which is somewhat unexpected. This is a character who you would think would be preening and falling all over himself to command attention, but Whitehead avoids becoming that stereotype and instead finds the humanity in this person who is on the wrong side of history, but trying to live his convictions.
Steve Liebhauser has some of the best lines in the production as E.K. Hornbeck, a journalist from Baltimore who is in town covering the trial. Mistrust of the media is another oddly prescient theme in this play, but Liebhauser is whip smart and not afraid to insult people with a smile. "A newspapers duty is to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comforted" is one of his better lines, but he gets to throw out zingers left and right.
The cast is rather large, so it's impossible to praise each of them individually, but there are no weak links. This is one of those productions where everything just works--the cast, the sets, the musical interludes--everything comes together beautifully to tell a powerful story, and it's a treat to watch. The overall package is somewhat undermined by a weak and rushed ending, unfortunately, but that might just be the only flaw. The program notes that this play takes place 'Not too long ago (it might have been yesterday. It could be tomorrow)'. Despite the somewhat ominous tone, this play still has a lightness that will entertain, but an important message that's timeless.
Inherit the Wind, at Ocean State Theatre in Warwick through April 16. For tickets call (401) 921-6800 or visit www.OceanStateTheatre.org.