Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Inherit the Wind

Henry Drummond (J. Toney) interrogates a potential juror (Tyler Tufts)
as the judge (Greg Lanzaro) watches. Courtesy photo
Though they have done a few dramas in the many years I have been reviewing productions of the Winters Community Theatre Company, I think of them as doing mostly comedies, with the occasional musical. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I learned the next production was going to be Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee’s “Inherit the Wind.”

Coming off the stage and into the director’s chair for the first time, Rodney Orosco promised the audience “a good show…maybe a great show.” In all honesty, it was not a great show, but it was a very good show.

Most people know that this is the story of the trial of Thomas Scopes (called Bertram Cates in this script), the teacher who had the audacity to teach his students about evolution instead of creationism in 1925. It is sad to realize that many of the things shouted by conservatives in 1925 ring true in 2019, nearly 100 years later. At the time this was known as “Godless science versus fairy-tale notions.” I’m sure somewhere someone is preaching the same sentiment today. We have not evolved as quickly as expected.

The Scopes trial pitted two of the legal giants of the age against each other — three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan (called Matthew Harrison Brady in the play) and Clarence Darrow (known as Henry Drummond).

The impact of the play rests on the performance of these two characters. If they are not strong, the play can fall apart. How fortunate Winters is to have two impressive newcomers in the roles. Will Oberholtzer gives a towering performance as Brady, the self-professed Biblical scholar who defiantly defends fundamentalism. Brady is the more bombastic of the two and Oberholtzer is captivating.

J. Toney’s Drummond is more laconic and sarcastic, but no less effective. He gave a spellbinding interrogation of Brady, whose slow but continuous wilting under the questions was perfect. Brady’s physical condition was hinted at by the attention of his wife (Ana Kormos) throughout the first act and his reaction to the courtroom heat was so realistic, we almost wanted the theater to turn on the air conditioner.

(Toney’s daughter Cameron — last seen in last year’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” — plays the town’s mayor.)

Winters regular Philip Pittman was E.K. Hornbeck, the reporter who covers the trial and arranges for Drummond to represent Cates at the trial. This was another strong performance. Hornbeck knows he is a controversial figure (“I am admired for my detestability”) and uses his reputation to his advantage.

Defendant Cates hasn’t much to say or do, but Spencer Alexander did it well, projecting his concern about his future as well as his feelings for Rachel Brown (Elizabeth Williams, alternating with Sierra Winter), daughter of the town minister, Jeremiah Brown (Tom Rost). Rost is always outstanding and makes a convincing minister, denouncing his daughter as a creature of the devil for her feelings for Cates.

There is a large cast, and Tyler Tufts outdoes himself by playing two characters being interviewed for the jury, one distinguishable by his impressive mustache.

(Also doing double duty is the suitcase, which a reporter (Laurel Brittan) carries in, and off stage, brought back on again minutes later by Rachel, bringing clothes to the jailed Cates.)
Among the many town characters, Germaine Hupe adds comic relief by her many shouted epithets at both Cates and Drummond.

There is a simple set dominated by a stage-wide backdrop by Jeff Hesemeyer. It’s an impressive piece, a vision of the town of Hillsboro, Tenn., strangely reminiscent of the town of Winters itself, both the Putah Creek CafĂ© and the Buckhorn easily identifiable.

The debate of creationism vs. evolution continues today and one wonders how many more decades this play is going to remain contemporary.

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