The 1925 Scopes Trial pitted two of the most glamorously bombastic speakers of its day against each other: Clarence Darrow on the side of Mr. Scopes, science, and the ACLU, and William Jennings Bryan in favor of a state law criminalizing the teaching of evolution in public schools.
Some contemporary debate always helps make Inherit the Wind—Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s Scopes Trial reimagining—feel relevant; opening in 1955, it railed against McCarthyism. Bizarrely, the debate it currently calls to mind is recent rehashing of the actual arguments: evolution versus creationism, science versus Christianity, educated outsiders versus small-town America. This trial is no relic—instead, the antiscientific side lands alarmingly close to recent speeches and statements by legitimate contenders for the United States presidency.
The clash of egos and rhetoric plays out here on a wooden platform based on the original courtroom. The two titans, Henry Drummond (the Darrow character, played here by Reginald Andre Jackson) and Matthew Harrison Brady (based on Bryan, played by Todd Jefferson Moore), lumber and rage and spit at each other and the audience, sucking oxygen from the room.
Six other actors manage the rest of the parts, switching from student to parent, mayor to preacher, sometimes instantly. Clever cynic E. K. Hornbeck, based on H. L. Mencken (and played by Nick Garrison), tosses off his snide witticisms. Alycia Delmore shines as both the exasperated judge and Brady’s stand-by-her-man wife. But the small-town stereotypes needn’t be so crass—a man in overalls cleaning his fingernails with a pocketknife is a cheap visual shortcut, and sometimes-cheesy Southern accents don’t help.
If you hold some affection for the play itself, director Greg Carter’s slightly altered version is definitely worth a look (he borrowed some from the 1960 screenplay, especially in fleshing out female characters). It’s a competent and lively performance with some compelling moments. However, while individual performances are sharp, the cast mostly lacks enough chemistry to distract from the dated, annoying small-town caricatures. The saddest thing about watching Inherit the Wind is the feeling of fierce disappointment that, the better part of a century later, this debate has come no further.