“Inherit the Wind,” now at the Pasadena Playhouse, may be the best argument for continuing to teach history and literature, subjects that are increasingly being ejected from college curricula. First produced in 1955, “Inherit the Wind” was a fictionalization of the famous 1925 Scopes trial wherein three-time presidential candidate, bible thumping, William Jennings Bryant represented the State of Tennessee prosecuting high school teacher John Thomas Scopes for the crime of teaching the works of Charles Darwin. Clarence Darrow, a well-known civil libertarian, represented Scopes. The ears of the country were glued to their radios for news of the battle in the first ever broadcast court trial. When Lawrence and Lee wrote their Pulitzer Prize winner, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s power was teetering in the wake of the Army-McCarthy hearings. The eyes of the country had been glued to their TVs for the ongoing saga of McCarthy’s antics against free speech. Lives were upended, careers were destroyed. In the mid 50’s, allegory was a safer way to criticize the powers that be. Arthur Miller had used it a couple of years before in “The Crucible,” based on the Salem witch trials. In the 50’s most Americans agreed. Democracy was threatened, be it by McCarthyism or Communism; Armageddon was just around the corner, wherever your particular corner was located.
“Inherit the Wind” is not a literal retelling of the 1925 trial. Some characters were added, most notably fire and brimstone spewing Reverend Jeremiah Brown (David Aaron Baker) and his schoolteacher daughter Rachel Brown (Rachel Hilson). Names have been changed: the Clarence Darrow figure is Henry Drummond (Alfred Molina), and the Williams Jennings Bryan character is Matthew Harrison Brady (John Douglas Thompson). H.L. Mencken was an essayist for the Baltimore Sun and was instrumental in getting Darrow to defend Scopes. His character is known here as E. K. Hornbeck (Chris Perfetti).
Like “Our Town,” critics often pan “Inherit the Wind” as an old war horse. Granted, it is written by two dead white guys, but rarely do I see a story so well told or so germane to our time. Brady/Bryan trumpets his belief that the bible is literal truth. How can you hear those lines and not think about our freshly minted Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, who has proclaimed the bible as his world view? Think ye children, he is third in the line of succession to the presidency. Race blind casting and contemporary casual costuming go a long way toward putting the story in a more contemporary mode, but it really does not take much. It is tempting to dump on bits of archaic language, like Brady’s calling his wife Mama, but have you forgotten that both Ronald Reagan and Mike Pence also called their wives mother?
Courtrooms are great for drama. John Douglas Thompson shines as the William Jennings Bryan character, Matthew Harrison Brady. His Shakespearean background is perfect for the character as he exudes the glib charm of the seasoned politician. Scruffy and down to earth, Alfred Molina, the Darrow character wins the audience, but not the jury, with his fearless defense. The production is thoroughly entertaining and surprisingly peppered with humor.
When you question the existence of History departments in universities, when you rush to throw out literature that feels a bit dated, do not forget the adage about those who ignore history are doomed to repeat. Then look again and see if the past doesn’t have something to say to you.