Powder and Wig’s Inherit the Wind offers strong performances but muddled theme
Crumbling pillars surrounded a court room, as if to suggest justice had been co-opted and no longer functioned. These ruins greeted the audience as we took our seats for Powder and Wig’s production of Inherit the Wind, Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee’s fictionalized account of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial.
The Scopes Monkey Trial involved a teacher who was arrested for teaching evolution in a Tennessee high school, defying a state law that banned the teaching of evolution. The case was a lightning rod: major societal changes and concerns coalesced around this trial. Among other things, the trial brought to the fore issues of orthodoxy and free thinking (remember, the 1920s saw the first Red Scare in America), science’s uneasy rise and religion’s (seemingly) declining place in American culture. However, given the context of the 1950s when the play was written, it functions as a parable about the Army-McCarthy hearing and the Red baiting that characterized the decade (and beyond). The central issue, then, is the one of orthodoxy and free thinking, with religion and science serving figurative functions.
While the actors carried their roles well, something of the direction mangled the core of this play. The town’s people became dumb caricatures and the themes of science/progress versus religion became the major sticking point, in a totally unsubtle and simplistic way.
For example, the anti-evolution signs and the gratuitous amens from the towns’ people were unrefined touches that actually made me uncomfortable, as if to say religious people from the South are all this stupid.
The enemy becomes the people instead of the state or the law or powerful men who create the state and the law. Whether this interpretation on my part is a function of the actual writing in the play or the directorial choices, I don’t know. Maybe I just missed the point.
I just felt so browbeaten about science and religion that when the actual theme of free thinking came in the closing act, it felt less pondered and actualized in the mouths of the actors. Perhaps we’ve become accustomed to the fiery, closing speech in court room dramas, a device so clichéd at this point that it has lost all its former intensity. It takes Al Pacino to pull off a highfaluting monologue, and even he can get tiring. However the sometimes comic and sometimes intense verbal sparring between the lawyers was handled impressively.
I don’t mean for this review to knock on Powder and Wig and all the students who put so much hard work into this play. I always enjoy Powder and Wig plays and have tremendous respect for the student actors, directors and crew who do really amazing work for student-led art at Colby.
In that vein, I want to highlight the excellent performances from Michael Clark ’11, Abby Crocker ’13, Kendyl Hatch ’13, Tyler Parrott ’13 and Daniel Kirby ’14.
Clark plays Bertram Cates, the schoolteacher on trial. Played with endearing timidity, Clark lets you see clearly the confusion of being a small person caught up in something much larger than yourself.
Kirby as Matthew Harrison Brady, the down and out politician, three time loser of the presidency, still caught up in the delusion of his never realized greatness, was truly captivating. In Kirby’s bombastic display, channeling something of Bill Clinton’s charisma, we realize Brady’s total demagoguery and also in his silent moments, the human insecurity that haunts him.
Parrot, as the defense attorney Henry Drummond, mixes the perfect balance of intellectual iciness, philosophical convictions and genuine sympathy.
Crocker does a fine job with Rachel Brown, the minister’s daughter and Cates’ love interest. While she does not have the greatest part (as in many plays, there are never great parts for women), she makes the most of the two dimensional writing to create a sympathetic character.
Finally Hatch plays the wisecracking journalist E.K. Orbeck (the fictionalized version of the great American writer and critic H.L. Mencken), straddling the line of being a smart aleck without being annoying, stubborn without being tiring. I was also a fan of the cross-gender casting for Hatch’s role.
Inherit the Wind provided some remarkable performances in a play whose execution could have used some more finessing. I have so much respect for Powder and Wig and cannot wait for the upcoming shows.