A Wider Scope for the Monkey Trials

Nick Garrison and Emily Chisholm in ‘Inherit the Wind.’

In a “post-religious” America, the galvanizing question of how to teach the origin of the human species is still making headlines. Although the Scopes Monkey Trial happened over 80 years ago, Strawberry Theatre Workshop’s production of Inherit the Wind (playing through Oct. 8 at Erickson Theatre Off Broadway) has its finger firmly on the pulse of the issue, with strong performances in the second act making up for the lackluster pace of the first.

Set in a small, ultra-religious town of Hillsboro, Tenn., Inherit the Wind explores the upheaval of the community after a young high school science teacher, Bertram Cates (the slightly awkward Patrick Lennon), breaks a state law by introducing evolutionism in the classroom. Two of the countries most prominent lawyers take up the case, and their battle unfolds in the courtroom. Although the characters are fictional, the entire production is based on the historical events and people involved in the 1925 Scopes Trial.

A sparse set (designed by Greg Carter, who is also the director) places the characters on a raised platform reminiscent of a boxing ring, and serves as the jail, the courtroom and the railroad platform. The set isn’t the only interchangeable aspect of the play. Eight actors play more than a dozen parts, with a woman (Alycia Delmore) playing the male Judge Coffee and middle-aged men unbelievably playing high school students. These limited choices in casting made for chaotic and confusing moments when an actor switched roles.

The first act dragged leading up to the trial and the sarcastic, self-loving journalist EK Hornbeck (Nick Garrison) was the element that kept things moving along. Garrison injected his typical quick-witted, sardonic tone into the dialogue, snapping out lines like, “It is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” with sly smiles and emphatic gestures.

In the second act the lawyers, prosecuting attorney Matthew Harrison Brady (Todd Jefferson Moore) and Henry Drummond (Reginald Andre Jackson) lock their horns with rhetoric, the heated dialogue building strongly as they play off one another’s words. Both Moore and Jackson played their parts with gusto; the former embodied the persona of a gracefully aging Southern lawyer who is desperately trying to retain a life of ideals as they start to slip from his control.

It’s easy to get lost in the historical drama of Inherit the Wind—the turn-of-the-century Southern Bible-thumping and brouhaha over the idea of men and monkeys. But his is not just a play about the origin of man. In a current political economy where conservatives like Michele Bachmann are constantly nipping at the heels of evolution, maybe the question of whether or not to teach Divine Creation in schools isn’t such an extinct issue after all.