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Cleveland Play House's Inherit the Wind: frugal but effective

Jerome Lawrence (nee Schwartz) of Cleveland and Robert Edwin Lee of Elyria honed their considerable cut-and-paste playwriting skills working for Armed Forces Radio, grinding out World War II propaganda.

Later, as they drifted into the theater, their works took on the aura of Norman Rockwell tableaux. Like the Saturday Evening Post master, who created apple-pie mythology from photographed models, Lawrence and Lee mastered the knack of simplifying and heightening the emotional impact of their subject.

Thus, when the same duo dramatized Patrick Dennis' bitchy, multi-layered comic novel Auntie Mame, they put the title character to the fore, blithely waving her cigarette holder and uttering the succinct battle cry, "Life is a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death."

Worrying about the evils of McCarthyism, Lawrence and Lee — like Arthur Miller in The Crucible —took a chapter out of American history and shaped it into a vital theatrical propaganda poster. Inherit the Wind has not lain dormant since its 1955 Broadway premiere.

There are good reasons. First, it's irresistible to older actors who want to show off their oratorical virtuosity. Second, it hit on a theme that continues to play out in the national consciousness: faith vs. science.

Based on the 1925 Scopes monkey trial in Tennessee, the plot revolves around the battle between the liberal Henry Drummond (a fictionalized Clarence Darrow) and Matthew Harrison Brady (William Jennings Bryan) over a schoolteacher who broke the law by teaching evolution in his classroom.

The play's raison d'etre is the final image of Drummond smashing together the Bible and Darwin's book about evolution — a Rockwellian image of the need for religion and reason to co-exist.

Seth Gordon's skillful Play House production reflects the positive and negative effects of the economy. On the plus side, most of the parts are played by fine local actors. Unfortunately, the production looks like the product of a hungry community-college theater program. It's sadly underpopulated and uses the distraction of a center-stage jury of anachronistic volunteers of both sexes, which wouldn't have occurred in 1925.

Happily, at the heart of the production are two deliciously cured hams. As Brady, Ed Dixon has a sharp, regal, eagle-like profile and the majesty, kindness and self-delusion that must have made the real William Jennings Bryan a fallen champion of Christian beliefs.

Equal in stage presence, Scott Jaeck's grizzly bear of a Drummond is a potent compendium of guile, compassion and lucidity. You can see the light bulb in Drummond's head illuminating every strategy.

Even though Inherit the Wind is didactic and slightly kitschy, telegraphing its noble intentions to the back row, it's a work of art you can never get out of your head, like "God Bless America."

More by Keith A. Joseph


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