Finding: Freedom of thought in Inherit the Wind

The critic finds in favor of Stageworks.

click to enlarge MONKEYING AROUND: Jim Wicker, right, and Richard Coppinger play roles modeled after William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow. - Desiree Fantal
Desiree Fantal
MONKEYING AROUND: Jim Wicker, right, and Richard Coppinger play roles modeled after William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow.

The inevitable first question about a new production of Inherit the Wind is, “How are the antagonists portrayed?” The antagonists, as many will remember, are Matthew Harrison Brady, based on the great American orator and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, and Henry Drummond, based on the original superlawyer, Clarence Darrow of Chicago.

Brady is a religious man, devoted to a literal reading of the Bible, and Drummond is an agnostic, willing to suggest that the Good Book — including the seven days of creation — may be open to interpretation. During the two acts of Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee’s classic courtroom drama, these celebrities battle over the right of an ordinary schoolteacher, named Bert Cates in the play, to teach the theory of evolution to his high school students. As in the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, on which Lawrence and Lee based their 1955 drama, the real focus isn’t Cates’s/Scopes’s innocence or guilt so much as it is the willingness of Americans to accept Darwin’s theory. Will Brady or Drummond win the mind of a jury that stands for much more than itself? Will Brady or Drummond win our minds — we the spectators — in 2016?

Inherit the Wind
Stageworks, 1120 E. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. Through
Mar. 27. $30. 813-374-2416,

I won’t spoil the outcome for those unfamiliar with the play (or the four films made from it), or who have yet to see the solid Stageworks production currently running in Tampa’s Channelside District. I will say that the winning of the case and the winning of the audience aren’t necessarily the same thing. So let’s begin with Richard Coppinger, who plays Drummond as a charismatically folksy showman who knows just how to grab a crowd’s attention, all while seeming unconscious that anyone’s watching. Coppinger’s Drummond is remarkable in his ability to appear at once smaller than the events in which he’s implicated, yet larger than any stratagem used against him. Jim Wicker as Brady is entirely different: He basks in his fame and in the certainty that he’s doing God’s work, but he lacks wiliness and cunning, depending instead on good intentions and popular approval. Seeing these two go at each other, I’m reminded of a line from a Doors song of long ago: Drummond’s “got the guns” but Brady’s “got the numbers.” It’s a lot of fun watching them deploy their different advantages.

And it’s delightful to watch two other performers, especially in this large (19-member) cast. As the journalist Hornbeck (based on H. L. Mencken, who reported the Scopes trial for the Baltimore Sun), Jon Gennari is a power center all his own, unmoved by ordinary passion but still committed, in his offhand way, to the success of the evolutionists. And as a woman caught in the awkward position of being both a minister’s daughter and the amour of defendant Cates, Roxxi Jaxx gives a performance as convincing as anything I’ve seen this side of reality. Jaxx’s Rachel Brown is anguished to see Cates risking prison for a mere idea, panicked at having to provide testimony against her beloved and finally overwhelmed by the trial and the impossibility of her position. This is the first time I’ve seen Jaxx onstage, but if her Rachel is any indication, she has a great deal to offer. Theatergoers, take note of a new and impressive talent.
Take note, too, of C. David Frankel’s intrepid direction, which places townspeople not only on the courtroom stage (well-designed by Jerid Fox) but also in the audience, where they “ooh” and “ah” and express strong opinions whenever the courtroom shenanigans touch their sensibilities. The set also includes amusing hand-painted signs saying “Darwin is Right this Way,” “Read Your Bible,” and “Hell & the High Schools,” among other expressions of opinion. Laura Fowler’s fine period costumes include Drummond’s pink suspenders, the judge’s (Joseph Parra’s) black robes, and the homely smock worn by good Mrs. Brady (Dawn Truax). Director Frankel has made a few small cuts in the dialogue, with the result that the two acts pass with likable rapidity.

Do we still need Inherit the Wind? Most mainstream religious bodies — including many Protestant churches, the Catholic Church, and the Orthodox Jewish Rabbinate — assert that there’s no conflict between Darwin’s theory and belief in God (who, according to these views, chose evolution as a method for populating the planet). As for rigid fundamentalists, no mere play is likely to change their minds. But there’s another reason to buy a ticket: for the simple pleasure of this famous contest. Call them Bryan or Brady, Darrow or Drummond, it’s gratifying to watch these outsize characters at work. Maybe, just maybe, the real winner in this competition is freedom of thought.