INHERIT THE WIND at Pasadena Playhouse
There’s no doubt that Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s multiple Tony winner and Pulitzer finalist Inherit the Wind is in many ways glaringly dated and old fashioned, yet despite the fact that it's now been nearly 70 years since it first rocked the very foundations of theatrical history, it has in no way deterred Pasadena Playhouse's unstoppable artistic director Danny Feldman and the west coast’s most visionary director Michael Michetti from delivering it anew as one of the most impressive—and above all relevant—productions to grace a stage in our parched cultural climes this season.
Lawrence and Lee noted in 1986, “Every performance of this play should feel like an opening night, happening NOW on your stage for the first time, pertinent to this hour and this day.”
Mission accomplished, Mr. Michetti. Bigtime.
Although the classic is still set in 1925, everything about this production defies time and place, delivering it on a totally bare stage—quite a bold choice at the also nearly hundred-year-old Playhouse, which opened to the public that same year nearly a century ago.
As incredibly detailed, brilliantly multi-leveled, and period-perfect as was Peter Larkin’s Tony-winning 1955 Broadway set, Michetti and designer Brad Enlow have here stripped the austere Playhouse stage down to its original back wall, with ancient brick peeking through the crumbling plaster and a view of the towering riggings and pulleys stage right.
And on the other side of the massive space, bleachers have been placed to actualize the crafty decision to substitute audience members for ITW’s huge ensemble of AEA-draining townspeople and, as former castmember K Callan (who appeared in the first pre-Broadway production directed by Margot Jones in Dallas) called them opening night at the Playhouse, “spear-carriers” sporting signs declaring their fundamentalist religious zealousy.
Dominating center stage is the omnipresent banner that remains an integral part of the tale admonishing everyone onstage and in observance to “READ YOUR BIBLE.”
Sara Ryung Clement’s costuming is contemporary—well, shall I say rural contemporary—and even the jury box housing “twelve gentlemen” is placed downstage in front of the audience and is populated by patrons of both sexes.
Although the play’s every cultural and social reference remains steadfastly intact, the uniformly phenomenal cast is multiracial and even age-defiant, as Michetti’s brazen and rather courageous vision forces the audience to crank up their own imagination and call on their ability to suspend belief in an effort to focus on how thin the thread is between members of our mess of a species a hundred years apart.
Of course, Inherit the Wind was inspired by an actual event, the notorious 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial, where the State of Tennessee accused schoolteacher John T. Scopes of violating the state’s Butler Act, which had ruled that it was illegal for Darwin’s theory of human evolution be taught in any state-funded school.
The trial became a major cause celebre a century ago, resulting in reporters from all over the country descending on the tiny burg of Dayton, Tennessee to watch the clash of ideas and ideals between publicity-whore, former Secretary of State, and three-time presidential candidate Williams Jennings Bryan prosecuting the case and arguing against Clarence Darrow, leading member of the American Civil Liberties Union and outspoken advocate for Georgist economic reform.
The clash was clear: the war between the Modernist belief that the wonders of evolution could exist alongside the fictional but still worthy teachings of conservative Christianity, and those unmovable “clockstoppers,” as they are so appropriately called in ITW, who believed with every fiber of their being that their Bible was the literal word of their God and had to take precedence over the ever-developing facts of science and human knowledge.
At a time when our newly elected evangelical Speaker of the House, who when asked what his stance is on the critical issues of our time told reporters to pick up a Bible as “that’s my worldview,” could revisiting the Scopes trial as seen through the text of Inherit the Wind be more urgently important?
Michetti’s production is dazzling in a quiet, far more introspective way than the original production offered and in this regard, may I humbly say there is probably no one more able to speak of this theatrical divide than I am, possibly one of last remaining members of the original Broadway cast.
I joined the company in early 1956 at age 10 to take over the role of Howard Blair, the young kid from the class of defendant Bertram Cates (played here at the Playhouse in a strikingly heartfelt performance by Abubakr Ali) who takes the witness stand to tell the court how the teachings of Darwin have or have not warped his impressionable young mind.
I arrived just in time to briefly work opposite Paul Muni, one of the greatest American actors of all time who, although towards me he was rather gruff and exceedingly unfriendly, as the William Jennings Bryan-clone Matthew Harrison Brady delivered one of the most iconic performances of any actor on any stage in the last century.
One of my most indelible memories of playing Howard was that Mr. Muni scared the living crap out of me, surely the most perfect tool a yet untrained yung’un could tap into to help realistically create a character. There was not a performance whenever he grilled me on the witness stand before Melvyn Douglas assumed the role that tears did not flow for me—something the critics found impressive but I knew came from something far deeper than hereditary skill.
In the Playhouse’s new mounting of ITW, Brady is innovatively played by African-American master technician John Douglas Thompson, who brings a whole new and far less declaratory take on the classic role, which for the last 68 years has always seemed to me to be played by an actor imitating the bluster and grand style of Muni or later by equally amazing actors such as Frederic March in the 1960 film version and George C. Scott in the 1996 Broadway revival.
Thompson has a one-of-a-kind theatrical nourishment afforded him by having the coveted opportunity to play opposite the unearthly gifts of Alfred Molina in the Clarence Darrow role of Henry Drummond, and once again he unobtrusively dominates the stage with a brilliantly understated performance that turns Darrow’s usual string of bombastic one-liners into delightfully simple throwaways the audience must intently listen for to pick up on and appreciate.
Here again is where my unique position and history with this play can offer a perspective perhaps no one else can appreciate as completely. In the original production, the clashes, both in the courtroom and off, between Brady and Darrow (played by the lategreat but always bombastic Ed Begley Sr.) are the most representative of how actors were praised for delivering worldclass scenery chewing 70 years ago.
Here, the relationship between these two dynamic characters becomes a quintessential example of how the art of acting has itself evolved over the past seven decades. These two unearthly gifted performers deliver Lawrence and Lee’s thought-provoking text with a far more realistic, far more accessible delivery, ultimately making the work about the ideas introduced rather than about the demonstrative and declarative nature of two great actors’ celebrated performances.
This doesn’t in any way detract from the “old ways,” which were thrilling to watch and helped encourage the confidence and building blocks to create our now more introspective and even more thrilling universal performing technique, only that in the hands of Thompson and Molina led by Michetti, the insight offered is the payoff rather than stylistic hyperbole.
This oratorical playing style is still slyly echoed in the exceptional performance of David Aaron Baker delivering his punishing, wonderfully unconstrained, and surely exhausting sermon as the Reverend Jeremiah Brown, which highlights the polar opposite work of the two leading actors.
Michael Kostroff also has some charmingly over-the-top moments as the town’s milquetoast mayor and virtually every ensemble member flawlessly contributes their own rich individual interpretations of the town’s adamantly deluded and horrified residents, all particularly impressive managing to periodically move downstage believably to deliver fine renditions of “Give Me That Old-Time Religion” and other such homespun old hymnals.
As much as I just praised Thompson and Molina for their restrained and more temperate performances, Abbott Elementary’s Chris Perfetti brings a far more theatrical spin to cynical big-city editorial journalist E. K. Hornbeck, a role that jumpstarted the career of Tony Randall back when his work was still far more subdued than either misters Muni or Begley.
Perfetti drops the world-weary Hornbeck’s frequent anti-religious epistles of sarcasm with what appears to be a self-satisfied relish for each wisecrack, moving with a Fosse-esque physicality that is as baroque as Randall’s interpretation was uncharacteristically subdued—and when he literally offers the Reverend’s daughter Rachel (Rachel Hilson) a bite of his apple, it’s not hard to grock what Michetti had in mind.
I was slightly less taken with Bilson, who is obviously a talented actor but whose hesitant, occasionally terrified delivery makes it hard to imagine the decision the character makes at the end of the play. Rachel Brown has been raised within the constrictive confines of her father and the community’s skewed religious fanaticism but if earlier on she doesn’t show a hint of a backbone, the rest of her story seems highly unlikely.
For me, although I anticipated a wave of nostalgia and a reminder of the shockingly quick passage of time would overtake me, I didn’t realize the extent of how much I would be moved. As soon as the lights first came up on the delightfully endearing Matt Gomez Hidaka in the role in which I first stepped barefoot onto a Broadway stage some 67 years ago, sporting my homemade fishing pole and a tin can for bait retrieval, I felt an unexpected catch in my ability to breath normally.
As Hidaka held up Howard’s trophy, a big fat juicy earthworm to taunt his young admirer Melinda (here sweetly played by Gabriella Pizzigoni), I nearly delivered his line right along with this new stand o’ cotton: “What’re yuh skeered of? You was a worm once.” I’ve attended many other performances of plays in which I once appeared, but none has struck me quite as dramatically as this long, long ago moment in time as this one did.
In an era where we are all potentially drowning in a sea of backward thinking in our country and much of the world, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s dated but still insightful and groundbreaking masterwork is desperately ready to be revived once again on an even grander scale. In a perfect world, Michael Michetti’s gobsmack of a rethinking should travel on from Pasadena back to New York in its shatteringly germane present incarnation.
Inherit the Wind caused a heap of controversy and its share of shocked viewers way back in 1955 but we, as artists unafraid to tackle the inequities of twisted values and the absurdity of our society from Euripides to Moliere to Tennessee Williams, are the entity of change most overlooked in the history of our species’ existence. This production made me leave the Playhouse almost unable to speak simply because how much it renewed my faith in what so many of us stand for and champion at all costs in our sometimes questionably Quixote-like existence spinning out of control on the doomed surface of our troubled planet.
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