Reviewed by Tony Annicone
The current show at Ocean State Theatre Company is one of the outstanding dramas of our time “Inherit the Wind” by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. While this Tony Award winning play debuted in 1955, its story is as relevant today as it was then. It is a fictionalized account based on the Scopes monkey trial of 1925, when a Tennessee teacher was arraigned for reading passages from “On the Origins of Species” to his pupils. The teacher, Bertram Cates is a callow Darwinian. The real battle in this show is between the two counsels.
For the prosecution, in Hillsboro, a small town in the Bible belt, is Matthew Harrison Brady, a thrice defeated presidential candidate and a religious fundamentalist. Opposing him is Henry Drummond from Chicago who believes in the right to individual thought. The controversial subject of evolution versus creationism causes two polar opposites to engage in one explosive battle of beliefs. Says Jerome Lawrence about this play, “We used the teaching of evolution as a parable, a metaphor for any kind of mind control. It’s not about science versus religion. It’s about the right to think.” Director Fred Sullivan Jr. casts 21 topnotch performers in these roles and elicits marvelous performances from them. They make us see how the more things change the more they stay the same. People have to remember their individuality and not be controlled or swayed to think one way or the other due to the popularity of one person or one cause.
Fred uses music from this time period in the show including religious songs “Old Time Religion” and a comic song “Monkey Business” to lighten the heavy drama of the show. When this show was first written in 1955, the McCarthy hearings were fresh in the minds of the American public, having come to an end two years earlier. The mindset of the country was that there was a Communist hiding behind every tree. This can be comparable to some current day feelings on illegal immigrants, fake news and alterative facts and everyone minds blindly follow the dictates of those in charge without having a free thought of their own. “Inherit the Wind” is a marvelous example that freedom of thought is important for not just the selected few but for everyone. There are many electrifying moments in this show especially in the trial sequences and the Minister and his daughter’s argument and the daughter and Brady’s wife’s argument scene. Some of the standout performers in this show are Tom Gleadow playing Henry Drummond who is based on Clarence Darrow and Brandon Whitehead as Matthew Harrison Brady who based on William Jennings Bryan. They both deliver multilayered performances and stun the crowd with their enormous amounts of dialogue. Tom has to convince the jury the right to free thought is the crux of the matter. Drummond cautions Cates to beware of all shine and no substance. Brandon has to use the religious ideals the character has been championing for many years. Brady quotes Proverbs when he states “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind: and the fool shall be servant to the wise in heart.” The phenomenal ending to the show is powerful and extremely dramatic. Their combined efforts plus the talent of the rest of the cast wins them a well deserved standing ovation at the end of the show.
Steven Liebhauser does a marvelous job as the cynical journalist, E.K. Hornbeck who is based on H.L. Mencken. He keeps things boiling in this small town by bringing in the hot shot lawyer from Chicago. Bertram Cates, the defendant is excellently played by Marc Dante Mancini. His earnest and brilliant portrayal is a shining moment in the show. Chris Perrotti delivers a splendid performance as the fire and brimstone preacher who leads the fight against Darwinism. His argument with his daughter crackles with intensity. Nora Marie Eschenheimer is fantastic as the long suffering daughter and fiance of Bertram. The character of Rachel Brown is torn apart by her loyalty to both and her testimony on the stand is breathtaking and heartrending. I last reviewed Nora as Nina in “The Seagull” at URI in 2011. Another standout performance is by Karen Gail Kessler as Mrs. Brady who has a show stopping dramatic scene with Nora as well as a tugging of the heartstrings scene with her husband when he is crushed by being laughed at in the courtroom. Fred always does a fabulous job directing and this show is one more feather in his cap. So for a thought provoking show from the past that still resonates with contemporary audiences, be sure to catch “Inherit the Wind” at Ocean State Theatre Company. It is a brilliant piece of theatre that must be seen by current day audiences.
INHERIT THE WIND (29 March to 16 April)
Ocean State Theatre Company, 1245 Jefferson Boulevard, Warwick, RI
1(401)921-6800 or www.oceanstatetheatre.org