Inherit the Wind at Vagabond Players offers a compelling look at the effects of revolutionary ideas on a small American town. It challenges us to look at the way we think about things and the way we interact with people who think about them differently. Taking place in a small town, the play concerns the trial of a young school teacher who has broken state law by teaching Darwinism and the Theory of Evolution instead of the pre-prescribed creationism as mandated by the state. Written in 1955 by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, as a way to discuss McCarthyism and the right to intellectual freedom, the play depicts a town, a community, and a people in crisis.
This is one of those shows where the ensemble can make or break the entire show. Much of the show rests on the townsfolk’s shoulders in order to truly sell the chaos and turmoil created by this controversial trial taking place. I’m saddened to say that this simply did not happen. Continuously throughout the show the entire ensemble would check out of scenes that did not directly involve them, or would have loud conversations while scenes were happening right in front of them, distracting us from the point of focus. There was also an immense lack of character work that was put into the ensemble characters. None of them seemed to have any complex relationships to anyone else. Everyone gave simple face value readings of the interjection lines they had, and as a result there was a dynamic to the collective ensemble that was simply missing for me. The same amount of work should be put into a character that has three lines as for a character that talks the entire show.
Now with that being said, there were some exceptionally strong performances from the lead cast. Tom Howley as Henry Drummond, the defense attorney brought in to represent Bert the school teacher, is absolutely breath taking. The control he demonstrates over his vocal presence and physicality is exceptional and set him in a league of his own among the cast. Everyone else was playing to catch up to him.
Baltimore staple Jeff Murray as the prosecutor, Mathew Harrison Brady, performed admirably and gave some great work. My only problem with Mr. Murray is that although on paper he hits all the right marks (good pacing, great dynamic character, and clear relationships with those he interacts with), I never notice a big difference from him character to character in the plays he performs in. If this were the first performance I ever saw him in I’d be blown away, but speaking as someone who has seen him multiple times, I wish I could see him really stretch his versatility and make some strong character choices that were different from his past attempts.
One of the clear highlights of the evening was Janise Whelan as Mrs. Brady, the wife of Matthew Harrison Brady. She may not have that much to do (it’s a play written by two white cis-gender men in the 1950’s so naturally an interesting dynamic woman character would be too much to expect), but she lives so naturally in every moment with exceptional presence that one’s eyes are constantly drawn to her to see what she is doing. The best scene of the night is the scene between her and the preacher’s daughter Rachel Brown, played by Lanoree Blake. It’s a shame that it is the only scene in the play with two women and all they talk about are the men in their lives. The Bechdel test is definitely not passed in this script. Even so they both find an emotional truth to their characters and provide a powerful glimpse into these two women’s lives.
In a cast of over 20 it would be impossible for me to mention everyone in detail but there are a few who deserve honorable mentions. Peter Wilkes perfectly captures the southern preacher and so brilliantly performs the final moments of the first act, raising the intensity level of the entire production. David Shoemaker serves a cool and aloof portrayal of reporter E.K. Hornbeck, bringing a naturalism to the show that exists as a great foil for the chaos that entraps the other characters. Matt Mitchell as Bertram Cates cuts to the core when he reveals the reason he stopped going to church in easily the most powerful moment of the show.
The direction by Sherrionne Brown was ably handled if not a little misguided. It seemed to me the majority of the focus went to developing the main few leads and guiding them to strong performances. While for the most part she succeeded in that, the creation of the world was lacking immensely. I had very little sense of the world they lived in and what the stakes were for this world with a teacher educating his students about evolution. Without the environment and the world firmly established, the full potential of the script was never fully realized. The best example of this would be in the courtroom scenes. Whenever the two lawyers started to get into a fight and establish tension they would almost immediately step out from behind their tables and come right center stage with each other toe to toe. This instantly cut all the dramatic tension they had created thus far. Not only should this break the rules and conventions of the world (lawyers cannot just come out from behind their tables to fight with each other every five minutes) it’s simply not interesting staging. It’s much more interesting to watch the internal work of characters pushing against the rules of the world than it is to watch them physically just do whatever they want.
The set design was well conceived but poorly executed. The painting of the courthouse and other buildings on the upstage wall seemed like a strong first draft but that the finishing touches still needed to be put on. The courtroom itself was well constructed: two tables, a witness stand, and a judge bench, all served their function although none of it was particularly outstanding.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO: Although for a play that should feel like the clash of the titans amidst a small town in crisis, but feels more like a simple story with dramatic moments that never quite reaches its potential, go see the show for the excellent performances by the lead cast. The script is also incredibly thought provoking, although a little outdated. (T)
Inherit the Wind runs at Vagabond Players through February 4th. Running time is two hours with one fifteen minute intermission.