Spencer Tracy, who played the role modeled on Clarence Darrow in the movie version of Inherit the Wind, reportedly said about acting, “Don’t let ’em catch you at it.” In the current revival of the Pulitzer-nominated Jerome Lawrence-Robert E. Lee courtroom drama, there’s enough violation of that unwritten show business law by Tony Award winners Christopher Plummer, Brian Dennehy, and Denis O’Hare to justify calling out several NYPD squad cars.
The play’s subject, the famous or, by some standards, infamous 1925 Scopes monkey trial in Dayton, Tennessee, remains mesmerizing. Moreover, since it is treated with sufficient command by the authors, Inherit the Wind still comes through like gangbusters — or something close to it. Still, 52 years after its Broadway debut, the play does look like a product of its time, which is both good and bad.
It’s got a message about forward and backward thinking made shockingly manifest by the Tennessee government’s objection to a substitute teacher relaying Charles Darwin’s scientific theories to his high school biology class. However, since some of the courtroom shenanigans depicted are unlikely and Brady collapses at the end of the trial rather than five days later for clashing-symbol purposes, it’s not inaccurate to say that some of the drama’s conventions have dated.
In a more significant way, and an unfortunate one, the subject matter hasn’t dated. The evolution/creationism debate still rages in pockets throughout the land. For that reason alone, Inherit the Wind still blows with biblical force. Yet, more often than not, rather than enhancing the damning points that Lawrence and Lee make about the retrograde implications of creationism theorists, the acting gets in the way of the play.
Plummer, playing Darrow-substitute Henry Drummond, obviously suspects that Darrow employed physical and verbal tricks to disarm an unsympathetic jury and a hostile visitors gallery. Yes, he does deliver several of his defense-attorney speeches as if they emanate from the core of his incensed being. But at other times, shuffling around with a shock of hair falling lankly over his forehead and perhaps giving an exaggerated impression of codger-like old age, he seems less like he’s playing to the courthouse audience than catering to the audience in the theater.
The very tall Dennehy comes up short in a different way. His approach to venerated orator William Jennings Bryan, here called Matthew Harrison Brady, is to push the smiling bombast note until it sticks. He entirely forgets to suggest that Brady is meant to be a man in failing health. It’s as if Dennehy is paying lip service to acting externals, expecting that his minimum effort will satisfy the audience. Comparing this performance to his multi-faceted James Tyrone in the 2003 Long Day’s Journey Into Night is like comparing sirloin to soyburger.
Perhaps the surest sign that something has gone awry with this production is the work of the previously never less than imaginative and always on-the-nose O’Hare. Here, the jaunty scene-stealer finally crosses the line between character and caricature as E. K. Hornbeck, who stands in for the famed journalist H. L. Mencken. For reasons they eventually explain in dialogue, Lawrence and Lee aren’t entirely in the inveterately caustic Baltimore Sun commentator’s corner, but that’s no reason for O’Hare to make his appearance a festival of increasingly irritating quirks.
Elsewhere among the cast, Maggie Lacey as Rachel Brown — torn between loyalty to boyfriend/defendant Bert Cates (Benjamin Walker) and her fire-spitting father, Reverend Jeremiah Brown (Byron Jennings) — is simply flat-footed. On the other hand, entirely creditable work is done by the sincere, understated Walker and by Jennings, who’s allowed to be over-the-top because Reverend Brown is nothing if not over-the-top. There’s also a country-gospel quartet on hand to chirp evocatively.
Perhaps director Doug Hughes trusted the seasoned personnel to take care of themselves, while he saw — rather well — to the unwieldy needs of a 34-member cast. Those demands include several crowd scenes that unfold on a stage occupied by set and costume designer Santo Loquasto’s dark-wood bleachers, in which actors and some ticket-holders mingle. There are times when the proceedings look like a pageant, but that makes sense when it’s recalled that officials in Dayton (here named Hillsboro) pushed for the Scopes trial because they hoped it would transform their town into a tourist attraction.
At a late moment in Inherit the Wind, Drummond prophetically remarks about the hold that creationism has on some minds: “You don’t suppose this kind of thing is ever finished, do you?” That prescience indicates why, despite its many flaws, this production still blows with biblical force.