Strawberry Theatre Workshop’s Inherit the Wind

Inherit the Wind
Author: Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee
Date attended: 22 September 2011
Venue: Strawberry Theatre Workshop presented at Erickson Theatre

Director: Greg Carter

I grew up in Franklin, TN, a small town that has since largely expanded thanks to suburban sprawl. I remember driving down I-65 south and passing endless fields as a child. Now going south from Nashville there’s strip mall after mega mall, after mega church, after mega mall, after strip mall all the way to exit 65 to my old home on the outskirts of rural neighborhoods. I lived three hours away from Dayton, the location of the original Scopes Monkey Trial.

My father was a damn fine litigation lawyer for several years, which means getting into a debate with him was encouraged, but tough. By the time I began high school, my father had graduated from an MDiv program and started preaching for the United Methodist Church. His first church was actually a cluster of four churches in the heart of rural Tennessee where the average age of the congregation was 65 and the sum of the congregation couldn’t have been more than 80.

My father (and mother) raised me to question everything. My father taught me about sun spots for a science project in elementary school using the telescope he built himself. My mother helped me grow crystals in discarded coke bottles. My father read a Wrinkle in Time and The Giver to me and pushed science fiction greats onto my shelf. Our house was filled with books by Carl Sagan, Stephen King, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Heinlein, Frank Hubert and many religious texts alongside analytical companions to religion.

But we lived in Franklin, TN and I was enrolled in public schools in a county predominantly conservative Christian, which means I had to fight for the right not to be a conservative Christian. So, when they assigned Inherit the Wind in my freshman English class and asked who wanted to be counsel for the defense in our mock Scopes Trial, my hand was the first one up. My father gave me a copy of Darrow’s biography and I presented a case built solidly on fact, pointing out that religious texts generally cannot be seen as fact because in each translation something is lost. To say that I demolished the prosecution is an understatement. However, my victory was not seen that way by the others in my class.

A year after we studied the Scopes Trial, my Biology teacher taught evolution for a ten minute lesson with a very long preface and a permission slip for those parents wishing their children to be excused from even hearing it. He emphasized evolution as a theory and never discussed it again.

In short, it’s with a lot of baggage that I came to see Inherit the Wind.

Why this play now?

This question is what spawned the rather long introduction and all I have come to is: I don’t know. For me, I have a history with the play; I have a history with the culture that created it. However, I also question whether it’s a lasting piece of theatre based on aesthetic changes that have happened over the past fifty years. I hate it when plays introduce a character for two seconds and then s/he’s never heard from again. I hate scenes that do not directly relate to the plot or further the story, or tell you anything interesting about the characters. So, there are many scenes throughout the play that I consider to be a waste of space, not for lack of acting talent, but because they are simply unnecessary. I also tend to dislike plays that risk demonizing a certain group without showing humanity. Lawrence and Lee had an agenda (which was actually tied more to McCarthyism than evolution) and though Strawshop presented fleshed out developed characters, Lawrence and Lee didn’t.

The evolution vs. creationism debate is relevant in the south where the battle still rages on, but generally in the pacific northwest, it doesn’t seem to be an issue. Many laughs during the show by the Seattle audience seemed to be more out of mocking the South, than actually understanding these people and how threatened they feel when they perceive an attack on their faith or children.

In an attempt to make the play more vital, Strawshop chose an African-American actor to play Drummond and (thankfully) a much smaller cast with gender-blind casting for the judge. While these changes gave the play more urgency, it also felt a little forced. The play is about challenging people to question what they know to be true for the purposes of educating them. In that the company used the casting choices to their advantage, however, because Lawrence and Lee never anticipated this interpretation when they wrote the play in the fifties, the play has a difficult time addressing issues of race and gender. Strawshop did a great job of picking those moments out where they could use the text to speak to these issues, but because they were barely touched upon in the text, these choices felt flat. It was therefore easier for me to focus on the quipping of the Mencken character, who had the best lines by far, or the philosophy of Drummond which is incredibly captivating.

Perhaps the question is one of vitality as opposed to relevance, meaning the show is still relevant but perhaps not vital. It’s a debate that still needs to be discussed, but really goes nowhere in the South and is greeted by a resounding “duh” in the Pacific Northwest.

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