by Michael Bowen
With the fundamentalism of Franklin Graham, the Kansas State Board of Education and Islamic fanatics in the news, this courtroom drama about the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial isn't a dead issue yet.
Today, the battle rages on between classic Darwinian evolution and creationism, between random change and intelligent design. Eighty years ago, it got its start in the media frenzy that accompanied the state of Tennessee's declaration that the Book of Genesis, not the Origin of Species, should be the bedrock of biology.
Outside the courtroom in '25, they sang this ditty:
You can't make a monkey out of me, oh no,
You can't make a monkey out of me, no, no,
I am human through and through
All my aunts and uncles, too,
And you can't make a monkey out of me.
No, you can't make me out of a monkey.
Into a small town in Tennessee stormed William Jennings Bryan (Matthew Harrison Brady, as renamed by dramatists Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee). Bryan/Brady was the champion of Biblical fundamentalists who stood by the inerrancy of the Biblical creation story. Brady (Robert Wamsley) blows into town expecting to devour the poor high school teacher who dared break the law (John Scopes in history, Bertram Cates in the play), but he's surprised by the appearance for the defense of a famous jurist and agnostic (Clarence Darrow back in '25, Henry Drummond in the play). In the end, Darrow makes a monkey out of Bryan's fundamentalism.
It's a classic courtroom drama, fully suited to the clash of opposing ideas. In Director Norman Gano's production at the Civic, the second-act confrontation between Wamsley as Brady and Kim Berg as Drummond is intense and involving. Unfortunately, you have to sit through the first act to get there.
Gano allows the pace to lag. Some of the cast spend so long deciding whether to pick up their cues, you could drive a truck through the pauses. (In first gear. With a cold engine. Uphill.) Gano flattens crowd scenes onto the backstage alone, so that people seemed to be lined up against the painted backdrop. In general, the townspeople in this production need to act more naturally and less theatrically.
There isn't enough reaction by the crowd, for instance, to the entrance of E. K. Hornbeck (Maynard Villers), the play's H. L. Mencken figure and representative of the damnable East Coast liberal media. When Hornbeck wisecracks his way into town, speaking in snappy headlines, we need to sense the recoil of small-town sensibilities from the appearance in their midst of a man who in every way -- sartorial, spiritual, satirical -- is their polar opposite.
Hornbeck plays the jaded biologist peering through a cynical microscope at the doings of these insects, these Bible Belt fundamentalists beneath him. Villers chooses a lethargic mode for most of his mordant shots, and it's true that his character spends a lot of time loitering in the courtroom, waiting for a story to break around this sleepy little burg. Yet some his zingers might be delivered with more energy and animation, as he begins to do in his scene with the accused man's girlfriend, Rachel Brown (Stephanie Hofland).
In many ways, Rachel is the central figure -- indecisive, truly torn between loyalty to her father, the local minister, and growing affection for the accused man, who's her boyfriend. While she sometimes overplays the weepiness in courtroom scenes with and without Cates, Hofland is likeable as the audience's surrogate in the play -- the one who moves from unconsidered acceptance of traditional beliefs to an insistence on freedom of expression.
As Bertram Cates, the John Scopes figure, Damon Curtis Mentzer makes an impressive Main Stage debut. He has the straight-backed posture of the idealist and the kind of quiet intensity that's believable in a man who stands up against all of his neighbors.
The historical W. J. Bryan lost three presidential elections; his cherished silver standard had been erased by the forces of economics and history. He was a man who needed a bedrock of belief. As M. H. Brady, Wamsley conveys the self-righteousness of the famous orator, but without catching the also-ran's grasping at Biblical straws for the purpose of justifying himself. Having been a bridesmaid so often, he needed a sure-fire cause that would deliver a glorious victory at his feet. He couldn't, he was sure, suffer defeat while defending God's cause. Wamsley captures all this, modulating his voice to good effect. But Brady does lose. And Wamsley needs to convey more facets of his man: Beneath the pomposity is a very common need for approval.
As the interrogator, Henry Drummond, Berg growls and prowls about the stage, making a mockery of his opponents whenever they give him an opening. Even making allowances for the fact that Drummond is the most sophisticated and funniest character onstage, Berg's performance as the famous defense attorney is still the evening's finest.
In fact, if we hadn't suspected it before, the play's coda makes clear that the real skeptic and cynic in the courtroom was not Drummond but Hornbeck, the H. L. Mencken figure. It becomes clear that Hornbeck doesn't stand for anything except the cause of rejoicing over the demise of Matthew Harrison Brady. But where Hornbeck sees only the end of a bigot -- and good riddance -- Drummond is capable of praising his fallen enemy. He finds a middle path between Brady's mindless faith and Hornbeck's soulless skepticism. As Drummond, Berg masterfully conveys both anger and tenderness, exasperation and acceptance.
In the end, legal victory is accompanied by ethical defeat. Darwin's fish gobbles the Christian ichthus in this drama, but not without a compassionate insistence upon freedom of thought for people of all creeds. In an anti-Muslim era, that's not a bad thing.