Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Stage

Review: 'Inherit the Wind' at Stageworks is thoughtful and timely

TAMPA — Science is bad, religion good.

Some of the most successful lawyers win their cases by appealing to emotion, not evidence.

Politics and religion can drive a wedge between perfectly decent people.

Any of these ideas sound familiar? The folks at Stageworks Theatre, which opened Inherit the Wind last weekend, hope so. The show, which debuted in 1955, is a timeless gem. Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee wrote it as an allegory to the McCarthy era, much like Arthur Miller had done two years earlier with The Crucible. This Stageworks show runs rich and deep, and bears no flaws that matter.

It's based on the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial," in which a teacher was jailed for teaching Darwin's theory of evolution. This violated the sensibilities of Hillsboro, Tenn., not to mention state law.

Richard Coppinger plays crusty defense lawyer Henry Drummond, the fictional counterpart to Clarence Darrow. Thankfully, director C. David Frankel (who is also the artistic director of Tampa Repertory Theatre) has cast this linchpin role wisely. Coppinger's performance is reassuringly believable, the kind that can help an audience relax and take in the show.

Prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady, the William Jennings Bryan figure, was once Drummond's closest friend. I respect Jim Wicker's decision not to overplay the part, based on a man whose famed oratorical skills could not get him elected president despite three attempts. There were plenty of others going for broke, townspeople with unconvincing Southern accents (it's a lot harder to pull off than people think), stricken by the Holy Spirit and falling down.

So the tension between the two former friends builds quietly, obscured by layers of gentlemanliness and regret. That is one good thing about this Stageworks production, that a lot of the subtler points get made too.

Other key relationships include Rachel (played sympathetically by Roxxi Jaxx), a teacher romantically involved with Bert Cates (Ryan Bernier), the Scopes character who doesn't have much to say; and Rachel's father, the Rev. Jeremiah Brown. As Rev. Brown, Dennis Duggan — who actually can speak Southern (I'm mostly joking, it's more of a pet irritation with some of the others than a deal breaker) — pressures everyone to bend to his will, which he views as indistinguishable from the will of God.

He even pressured me. If you're up for it, Stageworks offers a handful of seats in the jury box on stage. Some jurors also sit in the audience. The reverend is a talkative guy and quite amiable. Duggan handles this key supporting role with color and finesse. There's a sly judge (Joseph Parra) and a cynical journalist covering the trial, the corollary of H.L. Mencken, lurking in the corners of the stage, bantering during recesses. Jon Gennari renders a careful portrayal of reporter E.K. Hornbeck, whose theological musings set up some of the show's most interesting moments.

The theater chose Inherit the Wind, Stageworks' artistic director Karla Hartley said in the program, in part because "the impulse for rational meaningful discussion and debate seems to be an art that is quickly becoming lost.

"Too often in today's society, we are polarized to the extent that calm discussion and the ability to genuinely and thoughtfully consider the other side's view is overpowered by vitriol and indecency," Hartley wrote.

And so the show does everything it can to bring Hillsboro, Tenn., to Hillsborough County. At Sunday's performance, an example of that commitment came about by accident. During the pleasantries of the first act, prosecutor Brady was nibbling pickled apricots when a piece slipped off his fork.

Actor Wicker calmly retrieved the fruit from the stage floor, then popped it in his mouth.

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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