Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Inherit The Wind
Also see Richard's review of Tell Me on a Sunday
And like that last production, this mounting has heartwarming, naturalistic acting and surprisingly great crowd scenes, too. Director Sydnie Grosberg Ronga has bigger-name actors, and now and then gets a bigger bang for her buck as a result.
But when did we give up the practice of restricting production rights to just one local company per season? Looking at you, Dramatists Play Service, Inc. Or perhaps the descendants of playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee have grown threadbare, and they're now reduced to selling matches on the corner, out in the snow.
Let's assume, in any case, that you didn't see that excellent version at the Clayton Community Theatre back in June. You can still get great enjoyment out of this second summer staging: Jason Contini is perfect as the cynical newspaperman from the east, goading his real-life father John Contini as the Clarence Darrow figure, Henry Drummond.
The elder Mr. Contini resembles Garrison Keillor both visually and emotionally this time out, which becomes rather sensational in the final minutes of the play. That's when Allan Knoll as the William Jennings Bryan figure, Matthew Harrison Brady, digs in for some big-time speechifying, immediately after the famed "Monkey Trial" in rural Kentucky.
It's in that moment that Mr. Knoll suddenly resembles the bombastic Rush Limbaugh, conjuring an imaginary clash between two titans of recent radio history: Mr. Contini as the contemplative, open-minded Keillor; and Mr. Knoll as, well, Rush Limbaugh.
It's just a glancing blow to our conscience as the play draws to a close, and both actors show great acumen in silently developing their characters' longstanding relationship throughout. They're far more than mere stand-ins for Keillor and Limbaugh. But it's an odd syzygy, a chance encounter between historical drama and what looks like two real-life giants of broadcasting at approximately opposite ends of the political spectrum, at least as far as their audiences are concerned. But after mulling over all the ideas of Inherit The Wind back in June, well, the mind does tend to wander.
Just before all that, John Contini is delightful, glancing heavenward in an apologetic moment before his Drummond skewers Brady on the witness stand with simple questions about fantastical stories from the Bible. And before that, Mr. Knoll is breathtaking in silent emotional complexity, as Brady steps in to break up a clash between a stentorian town preacher and his daughter (the searing Michael Brightman and the bright-as-sunshine Sigrid Wise), in spite of a creationists' alliance between the lawyer and pastor.
Pete Winfrey is first-rate as the schoolteacher who violated Kentucky's law banning the teaching of Darwin's writings on the theory of evolution. It's a Jimmy Stewart-like performance (minus the stammers), if you can stand just one more reference to mega-stardom. The utterly enthralling lady playing Mrs. Brady turns out to be local legend Susie Wall, glowing and every bit as certain of her on-stage relationships as Mr. Contini and Mr. Knoll. And B.F. Helman is startling, once you realize he's playing two very different characters in the course of two and a half hours.
But one of the reasons, implicitly, that the same plays are not done in the same town by two local companies in the same season is that critics may begin to regard the tropes and tricks of those shows with more than the usual pinch of suspicion. At this current Insight Theatre Company production (which is highly estimable in every regard) you could hear a bit of smug laughter on the first Sunday matinee, out in the audience, when Drummond confronted Brady on the stand, over various questions about the Book of Genesis.
It was a sign that, in spite of the splendid logical credentials of Inherit The Wind, its script can lead to just as much pandering to the rational left, as Brady and other characters on stage are guilty of pandering to the religious right. In that sense, Lawrence and Lee's 1955 work may also be one of the most notable "vanity pieces" of the modern skeptical movement, along-side Arthur Miller's The Crucible from two years earlier.
Still, a very fine production, through August 28, 2016, at Nerinx Hall (just east of Webster University). For more information visit www.insighttheatrecompany.com.
Cast of Characters
Behind the Scenes
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association