Inherit the Wind

Austin Playhouse revival reminds us that the war between creationists and Darwinists still isn't finished

Arts Review

Inherit the Wind

Austin Playhouse, through Nov. 4

"You think anything like this is ever finished?" asks defense lawyer Henry Drummond at the end of Inherit the Wind, a dramatization of the Scopes Monkey Trial. If we look solely at the still-surviving battle between creationists and Darwinists (and flying spaghetti monsters, oh my!) in our state's school curriculum and pledge of allegiance, then no, we aren't done with that particular problem.

But the never-ending war that Drummond refers to goes beyond the immediate evolutionary question. It strikes at something topical from the McCarthy era, when the play was written and when the basic right to freely express one's thoughts was frequently on trial. What happens when a community, a society, a country sacrifices its rights for tradition, safety, religion?

Indeed, Inherit the Wind is full of little battles being blown into raging wars. Hillsboro is the small, conservative Southern town where Bertram Cates, a high school teacher, is on trial along with his copy of Origin of Species. But this seemingly rural matter becomes a national battleground when populist hero Matthew Harrison Brady comes to prosecute.

Brady is met by an initial heaping helping of Southern hospitality, and Don Toner's Austin Playhouse production goes to great lengths to create this small-town atmosphere. The Gunn Brothers' wonderful musical selections are both topical and properly Dixie, though the rest of the design focuses more on the South than the 1920s for its setting. The accents are pulled off well, and the costumes are quite sharp, if a tad contemporary. Toner frequently incorporates his full ensemble to full effect, placing disgruntled townsfolk in the aisles, wings, and select seats to whip up some extra courtroom fervor.

For all their charming Southern hospitality, however, these righteous folk can be frighteningly vindictive when tested: The judge won't hear a lick of evolutionary evidence, and the local preacher condemns his daughter to hell for pitying the on-trial Cates. One moment it's harmonious hymns; the next it's calling for sinners to be burned – where's the line in between? How can such lightness and dark come from one group, one people? Where's the answer to that?

Ultimately, Wind comes down to its juggernaut courtroom battle between Michael Stuart's Brady and Dave Stahl's Drummond. Stuart looms heavily over his fellow actors, a populist force of witticisms, dressed in saintly white, the homespun crowd-pleaser who is the exact opposite of Stahl's stodgy, hunched-over Drummond.

These two titans know how to clash with each other, and their courtroom tussles stay compelling throughout. Stahl's sardonic humor and voracity of words in particular stand out as the cards are increasingly stacked against him. Everyone wants to be the voice of reason in Hillsboro, from the Bible-thumping reverend to the city journalist covering the beat (played with snappy, exquisite precision by David Stokey), but it's only Stahl and Stuart who are allowed to show that they're more than just competing ideas.

The Playhouse's Wind moves forward strongly despite the unneeded fade-out tableaus between scenes and a strange penchant for backlighting and excessive shadows. When the big boys need to bring their big speeches, they often do, and Stahl takes us touchingly toward the open conclusion that maybe, just maybe, there is no right answer. Is anything like this ever finished? Not likely.

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Inherit the Wind, Austin Playhouse, Don Toner, Michael Stuart, David Stahl

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