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A CurtainUp Review
Inherit the Wind

He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart— Proverbs 11:29, quoted by lawyer Henry Drummond, the Clarence Darrow stand-in in Inherit the Wind
Christopher Plummer and Brian Dennehy in  Inherit the Wind
Christopher Plummer and Brian Dennehy in Inherit the Wind
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
I wish that Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's Inherit the Wind weren't quite as timely today as it was in 1955. The religious right has made stem cell research as controversial as the teaching of evolution. The McCarthy era which inspired the playwrights' passionate plea for civil liberties is history, but living as we do in a world where the abuse of power is much in evidence, there's a you betcha relevance to lawyer Henry Drummond's final comment to his young client: "You don't suppose this kind of thing is ever finished, do you? Tomorrow, sure as hell, somebody else'll have to stand up, and you've helped give him the guts to do it!"

But the current revival of this rousing fact-into-fiction courtroom drama isn't a case of a once popular play that's been gathering dust mites since its initial three-year Broadway run. After all, it's been filmed, televised, and revived not only on Broadway (in 1999) but in countless regional and community theaters so that you'd have to be Rip Van Winkle waking from a hundred year sleep not to know the plot: A small Tennessee town is up in arms when a young high school teacher uses Darwin's book about evolution in his science class. Since the teaching of evolution has been ruled illegal, a trial ensues. The celebrity legal team— the bible-thumping politician Matthew Harrison Brady (based on 3-time presidential wannabe William Jennings Bryan) and Henry Drummond (a fictionalized version of legal showboat Clarence Darrow), the "monkey" trial (a.k.a the Scopes trial, for the real life school teacher, John Scopes) — turns that trial into a circus. The jury is stacked, the judge is on the side of the bigots, but Drummond triumphs.

So why bring it back now? You need only look at the names above the program title: Christopher Plummer and Brian Dennehy. It's an irresistible pairing and no theater goer who appreciates superior acting is likely to pass up a chance to see these two magnificent thespians duke it out on the Lyceum's stage. As if Plummer and Dennehy weren't enough of a box office draw, Doug Hughes has spiffied up this old crowd pleaser to give it the cast of thousands panoramic look of the 1960 film, but live and in color. Actually, the cast features some forty actors, many of them top of the line Broadway veterans, as well as a four-member bango and guitar strumming hillbilly-gospel chorus. Obviously, this lavish and atmospheric production has a high must-see quotient.

Though the actors playing the two lawyers have always and correctly been given co-billing, it's always been Drummond, who not only snags the audience's sympathy but comes off as the star of the show. This is more than ever true for Plummer's Drummond. He walks on stage, a bit bent, looking his age — but just for a minute. He's pure theatrical dynamite. His lines (including such poetic bits as "You may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder, and the clouds will smell of gasoline" the play's best) land resoundingly and he proves once again that no actor can better reveal anger, admiration or slyness just by narrowing his eyes.

Brian Dennehy, either by his own choice or as directed by Hughes, plays the flamboyant Williams Jenning Bryan character less bombastically than is usual for this role. It's an interesting choice. While this diminishes the fire on Brady's side of the courtroom it does add a degree of poignancy to the men's post trial interchange and Drummond's defense of Brady's "right to be wrong" to the H.L. Mencken's fictional stand-in, E. K. Hornbeck (Denis O'Hare). As if to offset lowering the fire on Brady's portrayal, the terrific Denis O'Hare has been allowed to overdo Hornbeck's role as provocateur and chief comic relief. Though certainly energetic and always fun to watch, O'Hare is too much a shtick figure masquearading as the Sage of Baltimore (Mencken actually coined the term Bible Belt which is referred to in one of Hornbeck's zingers).

Benjamin Walker plays the ordinary but forced to display extraordinary courage teacher with Jimmy Stewart-like restraint, and Maggie Lacey is convincingly torn between her love for him and obeying her scary dad, the fire and brimstone breathing Reverend Brown (an aptly fierce Byron Jennings). The cast is too big to mention all, though even the actors populating the crowd scenes shine with occasional speaking parts.

Star billing is also very much due for Santo Loquasto who double dips as costume and scenic designer. His summery dresses and straw hats for the ladies, knickers for the boys and suspenders for the men are wonderfully early twenties. He's transformed the Lyceum stage has been transformed into a courtroom complete with upstage bleacher seats for actors as well as some sixty audience member, with enough room for street scenes — including a visual depiction of the monkey link here a gorilla-suited man (if I remember correctly, previously a vendor with a monkey). It's all lively and picturesque and fulfills Hughes' obvious aim to avoid criticisms about a creaky and too familiar show.

A word about those on stage seats for the audience. Effective as this is visually, it required adjusting the powerful scene when the trial is over and a distraught and disoriented Brady keeps spewing his biblical convictions even as the courtroom empties out. With the bleacher audience obviously not about to leave their seats at this point a few cast members also have to be kept on stage. Though whoever is left pays no attention to Brady, this scene loses some of its impact. I would also warn anyone tempted to buy one of those bleacher seats because they're a bargain and promise proximity to the actors that too much of what goes on will be the equivalent of an obstructed view seat, especially the scene when Drummond calls Brady as his chief witness. It would be a shame to miss even a moment of Plummer and Dennehy making these opposites on the belief spectrum such enduringly compelling human beings.

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Inherit the Wind
Written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee
Directed by Doug Hughes; Associate Director: Mark Schneider
Brian Dennehy (Matthew Harrison Brady), Christopher Plummer (Henry Drummond), Byron Jennings (Rev. Jeremiah Brown), Denis O'Hare (E. K. Hornbeck), Terry Beaver (Judge), Anne Bowles (Mrs. Loomis, Townsperson), Steve Brady (Townsperson), Bill Buell (Mr. Bannister), Bill Christ (Vendor, Townsperson), Carson Church (Gospel Quartet), Conor Donovan (Howard), Lanny Flaherty (Elijah), Kit Flanagan (Townsperson), Beth Fowler (Mrs. Brady), Sherman Howard (Townsperson), Katie Klaus (Gospel Quartet), Maggie Lacey (Rachel Brown), Jordan Lage (Tom Davenport), Mary Kate Law (Gospel Quartet), Philip LeStrange (Townsperson), Kevin Loomis (Monkey Man, Townsperson), David M. Lutken (Gospel Quartet), Charlotte Maier (Mrs. Krebs, Townsperson), Matthew Nardozzi (Timmy, Townsperson), Randall Newsome (Photographer, Townsperson) Jay Patterson (Dunlap, Townsperson), Pippa Pearthree (Mrs. Blair, Townsperson), Scott Sowers (Meeker), Amanda Sprecher (Melinda), Erik Steele (Reuter's Reporter), Harry Y. Esterbrook, Townsperson), Jeff Steitzer (Mayor), Henry Stram (Mr. Goodfellow), Benjamin Walker (Bertram Cates), Andrew Weems (Sillers, Townsperson)
Sets & Costumes: Santo Loquasto
Lights: Brian MacDevitt
Original music & Sound design: David Van Tieghem
Running Time: 2 hours, including one intermission
Lyceum Theater, 149 W. 45th St., (Broadway/6th Av), 212-239-6200,
From 3/19/07 to 7/08/07; opening 4/12/07f
Tuesday 8:00pm to Sat 8pm, Wednesday 2:00pm & 8:00pm, Saturdays at 2pm and Sundays at 3pm.
Tickets: $96.25 to $51.25; on stage seats, $36.25
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer on April 16th
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