Two local acting titans clash as sparring legal icons in "Inherit the Wind," a riveting production that crackles with whip-smart dialogue vigorously delivered — points well-taken.
This isn't your high school English class recreation. Insight Theatre Company's version is elevated by fine acting, conveyed with commitment and an understanding of what's at stake.
The ensemble reaches back to look and think like provincial small-town citizens, threatened by a high school science teacher presenting Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. He is basically tried in a kangaroo court, for narrow minds felt he violated state law.
Smack-dab in Bible-belt Tennessee, that thinking went against the grain of God-fearing Americans who believed Creationism was the only answer.
Playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee used the transcripts of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trail, thinly veiling the true story for their 1955 potent drama. They wrote this parable about the right to think at a time when Sen. Joseph McCarthy's Un-American Committee was on a rampage, 30 years after the first "Trial of the Century."
The parallels between then and now — when free speech, the right to think, education and religion are often under scrutiny and under fire — are pretty remarkable. This production, shrewdly directed by Sydnie Grosberg Ronga, duly notes the contemporary comparisons.
In a customary potent performance, John Contini projects integrity and intelligence as Henry Drummond, defending teacher Bertram Cates in pretty much a lost cause, standing in for famed civil liberties attorney Clarence Darrow.
Allan Knoll kicks up showboating a couple notches as Matthew Harrison Brady, a grandstanding cause celebre attorney who feeds on the carnival atmosphere to manipulate public opinion. He digs deep with his blustery impression of the real Williams Jennings Bryan, the Salem, Ill., native, the silver-tongued orator who ran unsuccessfully for president three times.
To watch the men debate science vs. religion with such passion and skill is a bracing theatrical experience.
But the entire cast astutely characterizes the townsfolk, with Pete Winfrey notable as a model of decency as the mild-mannered teacher caught in the maelstrom and Sigrid Wise as his loyal but confused girlfriend, the daughter of the town's fire-and-brimstone preacher (a fiery Michael Brightman).
Jason Contini is impressive as the cynical newspaper reporter for the Baltimore Sun, E. K. Hornbeck, the stand-in for famous journalist and humorist H. L. Mencken. With his sharp wit and quick mind, Hornbeck isn't afraid to comment on the court of public opinion.
Christopher Strawhun is steady as a lawyer for the prosecution team, Tom Davenport, while Kent Coffel is colorful as the mayor, and Kurt H. Knoedleseder is a sympathetic bailiff. Susie Wall is Brady's supportive wife, whom he calls "Mother."
Thomas Schartner was memorable as the young student Howard Blair, testifying about lessons in the controversial classroom.
Kyra Bishop's scenic design captures the era and a stuffy courtroom during a hot summer, with Sean Savoie's lighting design setting the time of day and the period well. Brett Harness's sound design modulated the proceedings so one could hear the dialogue sizzle. Tracey Newcomb-Margave duplicated the look of the times.
This play is 51 years old, but remains a powerful force in art.
"Inherit the Wind"
- When: Thursday through Sunday through Aug. 28
- Who: Insight Theatre Company
- Where: Heagney Theatre, Nerinx Hall High School, 30 East Lockwood, Webster Groves, Mo.
- Informaiton: 314-556-1293 or www.insighttheatrecompany.com