May 1, 2007

Inherit the Wind, Wet and Wild

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The Schwartz Center’s latest Kiplinger Theatre production is Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s Inherit the Wind, a play based on the real-life Scopes “Monkey” Trial.
While the play takes many creative liberties in presenting the story, changing both the names and some plot details, it presents the key controversy of the Scopes Trial: the creation versus evolution debate. However, like in the real trial, the story centers on young teacher, Bertram Cates, modeled on John Scopes, who teaches his students about evolution even though local law prohibits this.
Based on this brief synopsis, the play’s plot does not sound enthralling; however, it is filled with comical moments and a romantic subplot that make it worth seeing. The trial aspect of the play is fascinating, as it presents questions about the problems with taking an extremely one-sided view of an issue.
The Schwartz Center production was very minimalistic, focused primarily on the acting and not extensive costumes or sets. This, however, is not to say that these aspects of the production were lacking. The play is set in a southern town “not too long ago,” according to its stage directions.
The costumes fit this undefined period; they were slightly dated but seemed fitting with the plot. In some of the opening scenes, there was one man wearing a marching band uniform that did not seem to fit the scene. He looked much more modernized than the rest of the cast, but otherwise, everyone looked as if they stepped out of a photograph of an old Southern town.
Further, the sets were primarily a very basic wooden framework that served as the seating area for the courtroom scenes. These were not moved at all during the play but were manipulated to suit the scenes before the action entered the courtroom. Interestingly, the show’s musical accompaniment, a cello player and clarinetist, sat atop this wooden framework, right next to the cast during the courtroom scenes. This was an interesting effect, as the musicians seemed somehow more involved in the play’s action, but this technique is different than in most plays that place the pit band out of the audience’s sight.
The play included singing during many of the scene-changes, which created a unique atmosphere. Functionally, this singing distracted the audience from the changing sets, but it also worked as a supplement to the play’s events.
As previously noted, the Schwartz Center’s version of Inherit the Wind emphasized its acting, which was superb. Actors were cast based on their appropriateness to the plot, which means that children were portrayed by real-life kids and the grey-haired men of the play were actually grey-haired men. Most high school and college performances simply cast their own students and dress them to fit a given age; however, the Schwartz Center included actors from the Actor’s Equity Association and students from Ithaca-area schools, which greatly added to the quality of the performance. While it would have been nice to see more Cornell students on stage, this casting style made the play seem more realistic.
All of the actor’s performances were excellent, but a few actors stood out among the rest. Matthew Harrison Brady and Henry Drummond, portrayed by Ed Schiff and J.G. Hertzler respectively, gave the evening’s best performances. As the dueling lawyers, these men were the central focus of the play, and all of their interactions were enjoyable. While Schiff and Hertzler’s interactions focused on a deep subject matter, their back-and-forth banter provided comic relief, and both men exuded the devotion that their characters felt to the trial.
The show’s other notable performances came from Barrie Kreinik ’07 as Rachel Brown and Ansel Brasseur ’08 as Bertram Cates. Kreinik portrayed the daughter of the town’s Reverend who is torn between devotion to her faith and loyalty to her lover, Bertram. The chemistry between these two was best illustrated during their emotional scenes in the courtroom before and after the trial. Brasseur’s skillful acting made him seem genuinely touched by the injustice of Cates’ sentence.
Inherit the Wind debuted on April 26 and continues through May 5. Tickets can be purchased at the Schwartz Center box office.