Wednesday, August 1, 2012
KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando looks at the Globe's new production of "Inherit the Wind."
Last month protesters outside Comic-Con held signs urging people to "Read Their Bible." You will see similar signs in the Globe's new production of "Inherit the Wind" (running through September 25 at the Globe's Lowell Davies Festival Stage). Listen to my radio feature.
Stanley Kramer's 1960 film adaptation of "Inherit the Wind" made me fall in love with Spencer Tracy. His performance as the Clarence Darrow-inspired defense attorney was so passionate, so full of outrage, and so riveting that even to this day I get goosebumps listening to his orations in court. But the story, about a young man arrested for teaching Darwin to his students, seemed to me like something that would eventually become dated. I grew up in the 60s and we thought we could change the world so surely this film and the play it was based on would one day be nothing more than a portrait of narrow-minded thinking that we as a nation would overcome. Here's a scene with Spencer Tracy as Henry Drummond cross examining his legal opponent Matthew Brady (played by Frederic March) after all his witnesses (mostly scientists) had been barred from testifying.
But here we are in 2012, a new millennium and these are the people I saw each day at Comic-Con urging me to, among other things, "Read my Bible" and "Turn from Evil."
So the debate raised in "Inherit the Wind" continues to rage and it rages right now at the Old Globe Theatre. Here's a look at the new production.
Playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee wrote "Inherit the Wind" in 1955. They used the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial that dealt with teaching evolution in the schools as their real life inspiration. But even back in the 50s, they sensed the timelessness of their themes. They defined the setting "not too long ago" but also noted “It might have been yesterday. It could be tomorrow.”
The Globe production directed by Adrian Noble is done in a period style. So as audiences enter the outdoor Festival stage they do feel like they're being taken back in time. Scenic designer Ralph Funicello says that Noble did not want a completely realistic set so tables -- sometimes many stacked on top of each other -- are used to build the courtroom.
"They are American kitchen tables, that's the design of them. And I think in his mind he said, a kitchen table is the place where these issues get discussed."
Keeping the play in a period setting helps put some distance between the audience and the hot button issues says actor Robert Foxworth.
"So that a modern audience can get the message without being assaulted, without being preached at. So it sort of puts it at a distance but as the play progresses I think the audiences begin to understand that this is not at a distance, this is very current."
That's why the play has endured as an American classic. It uses the popular format of a courtroom drama, ups the ante with two larger than life characters facing off, tempers the message with humor, and then asks the audience to contemplate serious questions. At the center of the story is Bertram Cates, a young teacher arrested for teaching Darwin to his science classes. He becomes the center of a controversial trial that pits religious fundamentalism against the freedom of individual thought.
Foxworth plays Henry Drummond, a character based on real life defense lawyer Clarence Darrow. Foxworth read about the real Darrow so that he could sketch out in his mind what kind of lawyer he would be in court. His research suggested that Darrow was quite the actor, insinuating himself into communities to pick up their way of speaking or winding a noisy watch to distract jurors from testimony.
"He would also balance his chair when the prosecution was asking questions of a particularly damaging witness and he would balance in his chair so the jury would be looking at him, when is he going to fall over."
Foxworth makes his Drummond a lawyer capable of savvy courtroom antics but also one passionate about certain inalienable rights.
"I think it's unfortunate that it's still relevant today," says Foxworth, "That we're having this debate still, the battle between science and religion, and the battle between the freedom to think and a kind of authoritarian religiosity, I guess it's a universal thing and it will probably always go on."
The Old Globe Theatre
The play unintentionally addresses that with the signs the townspeople display on stage. Slogans, like "Read Your Bible," could also be seen on signs held by protesters outside Comic-Con last month. Funicello says he designed the signs based on descriptions in the play and photos of signs at the real Scopes trial.
"It is sad, I suppose you could say, that those same signs, the same slogans, are still being held up. And that people still feel a need to protest in this way."
But so long as this debate continues, "Inherit the Wind" will remain a vibrant text that theater companies like the Globe will resurrect and perform in order to make audiences think.
Here is the interview with Foxworth and Funicello from Evening Edition.
Companion viewing: "Inherit the Wind" (1960, 1965 or 1999 versions), "Clarence Darrow" (filmed one man show by Henry Fonda), "Jesus Camp," "Creation"