Pacifica Spindrift’s Inherit the Wind: a take on the “trial of the century” in a time and place not so far from our own
The many good things about Pacifica Spindrift’s new production Inherit the Wind (by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee), are amplified imperceptibly by the timely convergence of a classic script as relevant today when first produced in 1955, under the skilled hand of seasoned director Barbara Williams. The complex choreography of a large cast is anchored by some stellar performances in the roles of defense attorney Henry Drummond (Louis Schilling) and head prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady (John Musgrave) in this courtroom drama based on a 1925 legal case once billed as “the trial of the century.” A substitute high school teacher was accused of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which made it unlawful to teach human evolution in any state-funded school.
The trial itself is the battle of the forces of good and evil, of religion and science, of intellectual freedom versus faith-based certainty in the Bible as the source of ultimate truth. This conflict is as crucial in American beliefs today as it was when the play was introduced during the McCarthy era of the late 1950s, or the real trial on which it is based, the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925. Think of today’s climate-change deniers versus an overwhelming body of science. Or Wall Street versus common-sense middle-class economics. What, after all, can be taken for the source of a real and final truth in the origin, or in the destiny, of humanity? And if there are differences of opinion, how can they be resolved?
In the play, set in a fictional Hillsboro somewhere in the American South, a schoolteacher has been brought to trial for having taught Darwin’s Origin of Species to a classroom firmly in the grip of Bible-belt beliefs. The world was created, as they believe, at 23rd of October, 4004 B.C. at 9:00 a.m. Any other construct including the millions of years required to make a rock, or to evolve a human being, is heresy. There is a witch-hunt here, and the schoolteacher is the heretic.
An ingeniously spare set allows the town to share stage space with the courtroom where most of the drama takes place. There is room in the background for the large cast of churchgoing townspeople to hold a picnic or conduct a service where the fire-and-brimstone breathing preacher, the reverend Jeremiah Brown (Stanley Scheidlinger) stirs his congregation to a frenzy in anticipation of victory at the coming trial. In the courtroom, prosecutor Brady and the town D.A. (Storm Russell), with the ill-concealed support of the judge (Steve Schwartz) seem to hold all the cards. But Drummond, faced with the refusal of the court to allow any of his witnesses to take the stand, faces up to the deceit. Sparks fly, genuine sparks between these two men sparring in defense of the values each holds most dear, as the battle heats up. The tension is palpable. The outcome in doubt. There are personal stakes at risk—the preacher’s daughter Rachel (Lindsay Shulz) is in love with the heretic teacher, but knows not how to keep his and her father’s love. Her conflicted minutes in the witness stand, the statement of her loosened hair at the play’s conclusion, speak volumes about the transitions her character undergoes.
There is not a false moment in the production. Director Barbara Williams knows the play well, and knows what she wants to say with it, ably seconded by Assistant Director Mae Linh Fatum in the management and seamless choreography of the large cast. Special nod to Annette Abunda’s costume design for allowing the characters to be who they are, rural but not rubes, in a time and place not so far from our own.
Performances: May 20 to June 5, 2016
Fridays – 5/20, 5/27, 6/3 at 8PM
Saturdays – 5/21, 5/28, 6/4 at 8PM
Sundays – 5/22, 5/29, 6/5 at 2PM
At: 1050 Crespi Drive
Pacifica, California 94044
Box Office: (650) 359-8002 firstname.lastname@example.org
Review by David Hirzel