The 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, in which a substitute teacher unlawfully taught a class on Darwin in a Tennessee school, created a dramatic intersection of faith and law. It proved to be such a dramatic court case, it played like theater long before it became one of the landmark plays of all time. Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s “Inherit The Wind,” their 1955 fictional play about the case, is every bit as immediate, engrossing and necessary today as it was then. In today’s political climate, with candidates sparring over diverging beliefs, words having the ability to poison the atmosphere and ruin/enhance careers and religion both a polarizing and essential topic, the timing of the play, which just opened at the Historic Iao Theater, couldn’t be more perfect.
Bertram, a Hillsboro school teacher (David Tuttle) is imprisoned and awaiting trial for introducing Darwin to his classroom. While awaiting trial, Bertram is comforted by his girlfriend Rachel (Lin McEwan) and taunted by Matthew Harrison Brady (Steven Dascoulias), the celebrated politician attorney and biblical authority. Not helping matters is Rachel’s father, Reverend Brown (Frances Taua), who condemns Bertram in front of his flock. The arrival of Henry Drummond (Don Carlson), Bertram’s defense attorney, adds to the contentious atmosphere, as the ensuing trial becomes an argument for faith versus science.
I’ve never seen “Inherit The Wind” performed on stage but was struck immediately by how cleverly it’s been staged by director Alexis Dascoulias and assistant director Rick Scheideman. Instead of sets and backdrops, the town of “Hillsboro” is created by elevated platforms, lines of tables that also serve as seats and raised dais for the actors. The large cast creates the feeling of a small but active town, where “everybody knows everything about everyone.” The effective costumes by Vicki Nelson and Jessica Nelson convey the time period and the ensemble of 33 performers take the audience back to a far simpler time.
The cast embodies the feel of an old community, shaken by new ideas that threaten their traditional worldviews. As choreographed by Mrs. Dascoulias and Scheideman, the scenes Hillsboro’s town folk in their day-to-day lives have an organic, improvised feel. The audience is swept into the story, in spite of the stage being mostly bare and the impressive range of the Historic Iao Theater stage strikingly visible. This less-is-more staging is both nakedly theatrical and refreshing. With the characters and ideas front and center, the actors create a microcosm community to stir the thematic pot and provide a powerful experience. This, drama lovers, is what theater can do.
Carlson is superb as Drummond, the play’s stand-in for Clarence Darrow. He has some terrific scenes in the brisk second act, particularly Drummond’s thrilling cross examination of Brady. Yet, Carlson is just as moving in his quieter, reflective moments, where we’re offered glimpses of his thought process and past. Dascoulias, with his deep vocals and mighty presence, gives a tremendous turn. While Brady’s bottomless pit of bravado is evoked in full, Dascoulias is stunning during Brady’s more vulnerable moments. Actors of great skill are essential to play Drummond and Brady. To say the least, Carlson and Dascoulias more than fit the bill.
Playing Reverend Brown, Hillsboro’s fire in brimstone preacher, Taua’s part is a supporting role but he’s the focus of one of the most transfixing sequences. Brown’s sermon on the morality of the accused teacher, with his daughter pleading him to stop, is riveting. Taua’s thunderous performance is yet another acting milestone for this highly accomplished performer.
McEwan is heartbreaking as Rachel, Reverend Brown’s daughter, giving dramatic heft to her conflicted character. There are great supporting turns by William Hubbard (amusingly wormy as the reporter covering the trial), Robert E. Wills (a fine choice as the judge), David Rooks (effective in the small role of Mr. Meeker), Ricky Jones (perfect as the tightly wound mayor), Jim Oxborrow (exceptional in a character role), Dale Button (playing the local D.A. and superb as always) and Joel Agnew (who ably evokes the time period in dual roles). Everyone in the extensive cast brings color and nuance to their part.
Maui Onstage’s production of “Inherit The Wind” is an impactful night of theater that manages to move quickly and not feel heavy handed. While ostensibly a tribute to the power of reason, but its overall effect cuts much deeper. It’s also a timeless reminder to not allow oneself a place among those carrying torches and pitchforks. If any play means to celebrate individuality, suggest open-mindedness in lieu of tradition and pile on ideas as well as mighty entertainment value, it’s this one.
Inherit The Wind runs from April 22nd-May 8th at the Historic Iao Theater. Tickets are available at www.mauionstage.com or by calling 808-242-6969.