When Lucinda Merry-Browne, founding artistic director for Compass Rose Theater, chose the 1955 courtroom drama “Inherit the Wind” for the group’s second production of the season, some would not have expected the subject of teaching evolution versus religion in public high schools would be as relevant in 2017.
But the play, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee and based on the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 arguing creationism versus evolution, still punches at some basic conflicts and emotions.
In the historic Scopes Trial, Tennessee high school teacher Scopes was threatened with imprisonment for teaching the theories of Charles Darwin to his students. This 1925 case attracted two famous lawyers — Clarence Darrow for the defense and politician/orator William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution.
In the Compass Rose production, the setting is a small southern town in the 1950s where nearly all inhabitants are fundamentalist Christian believers in creationism. Among the minority is high school teacher Bert Cates, accused of teaching Darwin’s theories to his seventh-grade students — an offense for which he is held in custody awaiting trial.
As director, Merry-Browne creates robust authenticity and excitement as townsfolk gather for a revival-meeting led by fiery Rev. Brown, played by Don Myers, while awaiting the arrival of celebrated politician and prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady, portrayed by Gary Goodson. Meanwhile, famed defense lawyer Henry Drummond, played by Andy Clemence, has a quiet entrance, meeting with Cates, played by Daniel Prillaman.
The theater’s height is well utilized for staging onlookers’ conversations offering varied viewpoints — including those of prominent journalist E. K. Hornbeck, whose character is based on The Baltimore Sun’s own H.L. Mencken. Also smartly exploited by Merry-Browne is the theater’s intimate space, drawing audience members into the brisk-paced stage action.
Perhaps most important to the quality of this production is its stellar cast, from principal players to such supporting cast members as sixth-grader Jackson Parlante, who brings life to a student witness — and hope to the audience that free exploration of ideas can enlighten young minds.
The play establishes town intolerance, promulgated by Rev. Brown’s revival meeting, where he pressures his daughter — teacher Rachel, played by Katherine Boothroyd — to serve as a prosecution witness. Rachel’s fondness for Cates makes her reluctant to obey her father’s demand. As played by Boothroyd, she conveys the agonized conflict between forced acceptance of dogma and freedom of thought.
In its trial phase ‘Inherit the Wind’ action becomes crackling, riveting drama as two well matched, brilliant actors battle.
As Matthew Brady, Goodson commands the stage. Compass Rose fans are familiar with his brilliant portrayals of Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mocking Bird,” W. O. Gant in “Look Homeward, Angel” and Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Here, Goodson may surpass them all in defining Matthew Brady, evoking the flamboyant, eloquent William Jennings Bryan.
Goodson’s Brady spars with Clemence’s Drummond, occasionally indicating his disdain at Drummond’s ignorance of the Bible and lack of reverence before revealing his underlying fear of becoming a perpetual loser as a three-time U.S. presidential candidate. As executed by Goodson, Brady’s shattering breakdown is heart-wrenchingly tragic.
In this battle of giants, Clemence create a memorable match in Drummond. Making his Compass Rose debut, Clemence embraces the theater’s intimacy to connect with the audience when expressing Drummond’s humorous explanation of complex subjects. In every heated court encounter, Drummond telegraphs underlying respect for his brilliant friend and opponent — even as Brady becomes increasingly desperate. Clemence’s portrayal of Drummond is illuminated by his reverence for truth.
In a stellar cast of 16, highlights are turned in by Prillaman as teacher Cates; Andy Ingalls who delivers Hornbeck’s sharp wit and genuine respect for truth in his reporting, Myers in his portrayal of hellfire threatening Rev. Brown; Nash Tetterton as custodian/guard Meeker; James Bunzli’s reflective portrayal of the Judge; and Janice Whelan’s protective and loving Mrs. Matthew Brady.
“Inherit the Wind” continues weekends through Nov. 26 at Compass Rose Theater, 49 Spa Road in Annapolis. Tickets can be ordered at the box office by calling 410-980-6662