Sunday, September 10, 2000

Theater review

'Inherit' verdict: Guilty of high drama

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In 1925, courtroom giants William Jennings Bryan (representing the past) and Clarence Darrow (representing the future) used the Scopes Monkey Trial to debate religious faith vs. scientific discovery.

        This trial of the century made irresistible fodder for drama for Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee who wrote their fictionalized account of it, Inherit the Wind, almost 50 years ago. The title comes from a passage in the Bible.

        There have been countless hours of prime-time lawyers since then, and Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Lee are journeymen writers at best, but the strengths of Inherit the Wind, opening the 2000-2001 season at Playhouse in the Park,overpower its weaknesses.

        With the theories of evolution and creationism back in the headlines, the central issue couldn't be more topical. And there's never a bad time to argue our inalienable right to think.

Courtroom drama

        The second act, devoted almost entirely to the trial, fills American audiences' insatiable appetite for courtroom drama.

        Director Ed Stern chooses to the chamber drama in an epic-sized ensemble, then carries it through masterfully.

        He fills the Playhouse main stage with more than 40 supporting players to create the atmosphere of a small, staunchly fundamentalist Tennessee town. They fan themselves under lighting designer Peter Sargent's effective glaring sunlight. They sweat in Kristine Kearney's period light summer cottons.

        Karen TenEyck's set design accents the directorial vision. A mural of The Creation fronted by a cut-out main street of small town America sets the backdrop, but the action plays on a series of small square platforms that suggest a stage within a stage.

        While it's a pleasure to see so many local actors filling the stage, they could be 40 or they could be 400. They fade into the background in the face of Philip Pleasants' towering performance as counsel for the defense Henry Drummond. (The names have been changed, but the principals are readily identifiable.)

        From the moment he steps on stage in the shadow of Joneal Joplin's wonderfully grandiose Matthew Harrison Brady (a.k.a. Jennings Bryan), Mr. Pleasants owns the play. You can't take your eyes off him whether, shoulders hunched in a bulldog stance, he's barking and snapping, or he's off to the side, slouched in his chair, watching.

        It helps that Drummond is where the playwrights' hearts lie — they give him all the best lines — but Mr. Pleasants' charismatic performance puts the audience in the palm of his hand, all the more so because he's given such a worthy adversary in Mr. Joplin.

Good supporting cast

        There's strong support from David Haugen as dapper, cynical newsman E.K. Hornbeck (that would be H.L. Mencken), from Jason Bowcutt as the science teacher who has defied state law to teach evolution and has become a town pariah, and Allison Krizner as the weepy minister's daughter who loves him and finds her loyalties torn.

        Among the many, many local players, stand-outs include Mark Mocahbee, assisting Brady in the trial, Michael Blankenship in a pair of nice turns, and Christmas Carol veteran Joe Sofranko as a lively youngster testifying for the prosecution.

        Near the end of the play, Mr. Drummond remarks, “You don't suppose things like this are ever finished?” So true.

        Inherit the Wind, Playhouse in the Park, through Oct. 6. 421-3888.


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