Imagine a time when it was forbidden, if not, controversial, to teach Evolution in elementary school/middle school biology…oh wait…what? Nevermind… –“Inherit the Wind” by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, published in 1955, pertaining to the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, will remind us of the debate’s classic timeliness.
The Grove Theatre Center’s location at 1111-B West Olive Avenue in the center of Burbank’s George Izay Park, fittingly reminds one of an elementary school playground and/or extracurricular sports practice venue. I’ve been told there is a plane there but it is dark and I don’t see it. Of course that Malaysian airliner has only recently disappeared so what’s one more from a park in the middle of Burbank?
My guest for the evening: LA Theatre/Shakespearian actor James Schendel: http://www.jamesschendel.com/
We pass a playground and walk across its slightly sunken surface. It smooshes under our feet like the most malleable of clay and/or the sturdiest of marshmallows as my musings vacillate between the best of newfangled athletic shoes and walking barefoot on a prehistoric lake bank.
We enter the theatre and sit in the first row. There is a rousing scrim adorning the stage’s back wall comprised of select Darwinian sketches including a cross section of the human skull and a human chimp looking decidedly like Conrad Bain. Not only that, as if things weren’t colorful enough, Christoph Brown, the world’s fastest Etch-A-Sketch artist is sitting right next to us—Scoodbydoowah!!! No Joke! http://www.etchu.com/
The lights dim and all the pertinent announcements are made: Turn off your cell phones, don’t talk to your neighbor, don’t talk to strangers, don’t talk to Christoph Brown or ask him to Etch-a-Sketch of the Conrad Bain monkey man during the performance blah blah blah and last but not least: “The Exits are down in the front of the theatre to your left,” as Jim and I assist in pointing at the doors in a most Stewardess-like fashion as the audience giggles ever so slightly at our silhouetted arms’ enhanced visual demonstration.
This stellar production directed by Kiff Scholl and produced by Wasatch Theatrical Ventures, opens in a most deliciously expository manner with a 15-year-old Howard digging in the dirt for worms in front of the courthouse on one of the hottest days of summer in history—but not prehistory—leave that to the bubbling primordial ooze. A slightly younger Melinda comes and questions his activities: And the debate pertaining to our existence has already begun as Howard declares dirt and wormhood our most basic genesis leaving Melinda chomping at the bit to quote the entire book! These two local Hillsboro teens literally and symbolically set the tone for what we are about to witness inside the actual courtroom.
The town and the season are palpable as actors enter the stage drenched in theatrical sweat—Hollywood style– and a joke will be made at the performance’s conclusion that the heat is either a metaphor for tempting fate–perdition-style–and/or a nod to the primordial soup from which we all emerged. Either feels fitting nonetheless…
The heart of the story will take place, for the balance of its unfoldment, in the courtroom and centers around a young teacher named Bert Cates, played by a most heartfelt, soulfully haunting, earnest and likeable Robbie Winston, on trial for reading portions of a book by Darwin to his impressionable young pupils. Though the play centers around Cates, it is he who talks the least as his character development is evident in his reactions. Winston is compellingly present and doesn’t miss a beat as he listens to the trial unfold, inner wheels constantly turning. Actor James Schendel will eventually liken him to a young Jimmy Stewart, most similarly, in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”—and really, he is just that sincere.
Equally so is his attorney: Henry Drummond, played by a crusty, salty and justly cantankerous Mark Belnick. His presence alone is enough to make me feel like I am watching a real world trial in progress and it is not surprising as I will later read his professional bio: “Although theatre is his first love, it’s his second career. After law school, Mark rose to Senior Litigation Partner in one of the nation’s preeminent law firms (Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison); survived as Deputy Chief Counsel to the U.S. Senate Iran/Contra Investigation appearing frequently in televised hearings; and handled numerous other high profile cases.” It is he who will take the prosecuting attorney Matthew Harrison Brady, played by a deliciously venerable, equally crusty, stately and sometimes Jack Nicholson-voiced Robert Craighead, to task by calling into question how the first week of creation could have been measured in 24 hour days if the sun hadn’t even been created ‘til the 4th!—One of my favorite scenes.
As I watch the trial unfold, it is so real I almost feel, (aside from the Judge and lawyers cheating out to the audience, and aside from there being only two jurors in the mere portion of the jury box the set designers built for the audience to see) as though I am in an actual courtroom watching this debate unfold for the very first time on a most historical plane of parallel existence.
Timely yet timeless, I can feel the grit of the dirt roads wafting into the windows off Hillsboro sidewalks…see children running in the streets and playing that weird, turn of the century game where they roll a grooved hula hoop with a stick amidst white picket fences in all things new but familiar.
Instances that stand out in particular: The Media Frenzy—namely a Reuters reporter being dispatched on the heels of E.K. Hornbeck of the Baltimore Herald along with a WGN radio reporter to top it all off setting up shop right in the courtroom like all too many O.J. Simpson cameras. Other stand-out scenarios: People having open and frank discussions about wanting to have open and frank discussions, openly yet in a most shut fashion as, at the play’s conclusion, it is determined that Cates will have to appeal and well…we may as well remain back in the 1920s to this day…
All performances are stellar. Characters, other than Cates and the attorneys, who stood out in particular include, Scott Golden as the Reuters reporter, Jesse H. Dunlap and Harry Y. Esterbrook of WGN Radio fame! Possessing a classic, early 20th century look and the most magically googley eyes encircled by the roundest of glasses I’ve ever had the good fortune to see, I could not keep my giddy, not so googley eyes off him the entire time he was onstage.
Similar sentiments go out to Tom Davenport played by Amir Levi, compellingly staunch in his confab with prosecuting attorney Matthew Harrison Brady, gives the impression of a classic 20s movie actor and only adds to the presence of the stage and all on it.
J. Richey Nash is deliciously slick as the cunningly manipulative E.K. Hornbeck of the Baltimore Herald and Laurel Reese, heartbreakingly sympathetic and equally reactionary as Cates’ implied other half, Rachel Brown.
As we leave the theatre, I tell Jim that, aside from the 1960s and 70s, I am quite certain the 1920s is a new era with which I have fallen in love, inspired particularly by this play—either that or it’s just gas (aka all too much inherited wind) but I’m pretty sure it’s the former. And if not, I figure I’ll simply write the next Disco version of “Battleship Potemkin”… or, better yet, “Saturday Night Faustus”. All in all, this particular presentation is one that makes me fall in love with writing and acting all over again…
While I saw this production on its last weekend, I just had to write about it since I found it so stellar. So while the Kiff Scholl directed, Wasatch Theatrical Ventures produced version of “Inherit theWind” is, for all intents and purposes, extinct, its memories, photos and glowing reviews are far from it, along with more exceptional performances yet to be mounted by all involved!
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