Many readers will recall tales of the sensational Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925, which became a notorious clash between science and religion. Schoolteacher, John Scopes, was charged with teaching the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin in spite of Tennessee law to the contrary. Legendary lawyers, Clarence Darrow (defense) and William Jennings Bryan (prosecution) entered the fray, and the rest, as they say, is history. It was that history that inspired Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee to write their fictionalized account of similar events in the sizzling courtroom drama, “Inherit the Wind,” now being presented by The Players Theatre Company at Conroe’s Owen Theatre. Director, Don Hampton, and his fine cast of thirty actors have brought this fascinating story to very exciting life on the Owen stage.
The looming excitement was not immediately apparent during the somewhat sleepy first act. It is a necessary first act as it sets the stage for the thrilling trial to come in Act Two. (Don’t even think about leaving during Intermission). We meet Bert Cates (Clinton Jeter), the high school teacher now in jail and awaiting trial for daring to teach evolution in this small Bible Belt town of Hillsboro. Rachel Brown (Jessica Honsinger) is Bert’s sweet friend and colleague. She is much conflicted by her affection for Bert and her fear of defending him in the face of her father, the fiery fundamentalist preacher, Rev. Jeremiah Brown (Rick Sellers).
Pre-trial excitement is building in the town as mobs parade singing songs like “Marching to Zion” and “Old Time Religion,” while carrying signs that read, “Darwin is Wrong,” “My Ancestors Ain’t Apes,” and “Save Our Schools From Sin.” Out of town reporters like the cynical and sarcastic E.K. Hornbeck (Joey Lamont) are arriving to get maximum press coverage of the carnival-like atmosphere that is building with hot dog vendors and lemonade stands catering to the growing crowds.
Then the play really begins to take off with the arrival of nationally known defense attorney, Henry Drummond, superbly played by area newspaper journalist, Mark Hayter, known for his amusing, somewhat tongue-in-cheek columns reflecting on everyday life as seen from Up On the Roof.
His feisty flair for looking at things from a humorous angle may have served him well in his creation of this even-handed, thoughtful and very likable character of Drummond, a man who dispenses bits of wisdom like, “The person who thinks he’s got everything figured out is probably a fool.” And what a perfect legal pairing we have with the arrival of renowned prosecuting attorney (and three-time Presidential candidate) Matthew Harrison Brady, with an explosive and brilliant performance from Quint Bishop. Mr. Bishop’s commanding stage presence gives us a Brady so full of bluster that he seems to even dwarf the presence of the prosecuting District Attorney, Tom Davenport (Mike Ragan). Cindy Siple does nicely as Brady’s sweetly attentive wife, Sarah.
Another fiery performance came from Mr. Sellers as the Rev. Brown lashes out at his congregation in a ferocious, wild-eyed, Elmer Gantry-style sermon full of hellfire and damnation for evolutionists and their sympathizers, even his own daughter. That rant prompts the horrified Brady to warn the reverend of Proverbs 11:29, “He that troubleth his own house . . . shall inherit the wind.”
The sparks really begin to fly in Act Two on the panoramic set design of Mr. Hampton. It encompasses the entire courtroom with a scowling Judge (gavel slamming David Herman), jury (audience members like Jim Pokorski recruited during Intermission), reporters, witnesses and gossiping onlookers crowding the well-lit stage (lighting designer Scotti Smith). The simple costume designs of Marieda Kilgore work very well and the sound designs of Mike Ragan combined with recent acoustic improvements to the theater to make everything clearly audible. Projection Visuals from designer, Roger Ormiston, created instant background scenery as pleasant bluegrass music accompanied scene changes.
During the trial Brady continues raging about “godless science” and what he calls “Evilutionists.” Drummond counters reminding the court that “The right to think is on trial.” He goes further to say, “Right has no meaning. Truth has meaning,” and warns the court that, “An idea is more of a monument than a cathedral.” There is another moment of high drama when Miss Honsinger gives a convincingly emotional performance as Rachel breaks down on the stand while testifying. But nothing beats the fireworks that take place when Drummond calls Brady to the witness box. This is local theatre at its best with two talented actors in top form and a fine supporting cast backing them up all the way. As for the thrilling conclusion, to learn the verdict you must buy a ticket. You won’t be sorry.
INHERIT THE WIND continues through April 6th at The Owen Theatre, 225 Metcalf Street in Conroe. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm with 2pm Sunday matiness on March 30th and April 6th. Tickets are $10, $18, and $20. For information visit the website at www.owentheatre.com or call 936-539-4090.