The play is a fictionalized account of the 1925 Scopes Trial which pitted Darwinism against Christianity and, in Lawrence and Lee's McCarthy era retelling, became emblematic of the vital need to defend the right of freedom of thought and speech, a topic that still resonates, even though the play itself feels rather dusty and clunky in places. In the play, Bertram Cates, a somewhat callow young schoolteacher is put on trial for teaching his students Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species and, by doing so, contravening the Butler Act.
The prosecution calls in Brady, a former presidential candidate and renowned orator (who was based on William Jennings Bryan) while the defence draws the attentions of the wily, white-haired Drummond (who was based on the renowned criminal lawyer and civil libertarian Clarence Darrow).
The first half of Nunn's production focuses on background and atmosphere, conveying a strong sense of sweat-laced Southern summer heat as it moves towards the second act clash between these two powerful speakers, with Drummond unorthodoxly putting Brady on the stand. Try as he might, Nunn can't do much about the play's preachiness and its forced flairs of sentimentality.
Spacey's performance as the grandstanding Drummond is physically impressive -- hunch-shouldered with a slow, shuffling gait and an almost audible creak of the knees when required to stand. More importantly, it's also a remarkably nuanced turn; his Drummond is charismatic and occasionally fiery with an undercurrent of clear-eyed intelligence. Troughton is even slightly more impressive as the lumbering Brady, talking himself into a corner without realizing it and crumpling into his wife's arms when he fears people are mocking him, but still maintaining a strong degree of dignity and oratorical heft. On the down side, there's a fair degree of scenery-chewing in the supporting cast, a pitfall which is mostly avoided by Sonya Cassidy, as Rachel the conflicted minister's daughter, and less so by Mark Dexter as E.K Hornbeck, the sarcastic Baltimore journalist.
Rob Howell's sepia-tinged set gives the illusion of great depth and space which is fortunate as the play is notoriously large in scale, written for up to 25 actors plus a large number of extras. The stage at times feels excessively cluttered even though Nunn has, rather ingeniously, placed the jurors in the front row of the stalls (allowing Spacey and Troughton to aim their arguments directly into the audience).
While this is a polished and well-paced production of a classic play, it's ultimately a little hollow at its heart.