Friday, June 1, 2007

Ill Wind

The set of Doug Hughes's revival of Inherit the Wind is one big courtroom, and as the audience members take their seats (some onstage), a "gospel quartet" materializes in the courtroom's gallery and launches into a set of bluegrassy old-time-religion anthems. What seems, at first, to be mere whimsy turns out to be a perfect setup for Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's drama: the musicians perform with such competence and such enthusiasm that I began to wish I could spend my summers in the 1920s Bible Belt, wearing a sackcloth dress and playing songs about Jesus on a dulcimer. They got the crowd to stomp along to their rousing rendition of "Down by the Riverside" (just try not to sing along), and then, when we were all settled and feeling magnanimous, inclined to identify with these good and earnest people and, what's more, having just declared our intention to study war no more, the quartet launched into a spirited rendition of the unconvincingly lighthearted, alarmingly defensive "You Can't Make a Monkey out of Me."

The effect is deeply, and appropriately, unsettling -- you couldn't ask for a better curtain-warmer for this play. Unfortunately, Hughes squanders the richness of this opening once the play itself is underway. As it turns out, staging the entire play on a courtroom set isn't such an intelligent design after all (ha). The trial dominates the play, but there is more to the play than just the trial; there are a number of important non-courtroom scenes that feel cursory and peripheral in this staging, pushed as they are to the area in front of the judge's bench. Many of these scenes are meant to give us insight into the trial's major players -- the two lawyers, Brady and Drummond; Bert, the young teacher on trial for including Darwin in his high-school curriculum; the town's "spiritual leader," Rev. Brown, and his rebellious daughter, Rachel; and the people of Hillsboro in general. A truly intelligent staging, one interested in sustaining the dramatic ambiguity of this one's musical warm-up, would build on the script to help us see these characters as individuals, not easily compartmentalized and labeled, even when they themselves insist on the strictest of interpretations. Instead, Hughes seems bent on reducing the dimensionality of every character, or at least of those characters not on the side of truth (i.e., not obviously rooting for Drummond), even when the script is straining against it. So he has the townspeople appear onstage together in a drab, uniform block at the top of the show, and when two youngsters step forward to perform the scripted first scene -- which, on paper, is a cleverly intimate introduction of the play's big themes -- the whole thing feels false (and not just because one of those youngsters -- see the show and guess which one I mean -- is really quite a bad little actor, although I blame the director for that, too).

All of these wrong notes combine to make one noisy, dissonant chord out of the first act's "prayer meeting" scene. The townspeople, under Hughes's direction, act as one, shouting their "Amens" and engaging in a call-and-response with the Rev. Brown as if they were performing "Ya Got Trouble" by torchlight. The scene ought to show us what is at stake for the believers in the town (or, at least, what they think is at stake); it ought to make us see how their world is shaken by the issues raised in the trial, and why they might look to someone like Brown, with all his fire-and-brimstone certainty, for leadership. But here we see them, not as troubled individuals hoping for guidance, but as a uniform mob, gathered to frighten us, to make us root all the more for their ultimate defeat and humiliation. In this crowd, Rev. Brown doesn't stand out as the most rigidly fundamental; he just happens to be the one with the most lines.

The actors who make up the ensemble are, for the most part, doing their best to create fully realized characters, however little use Hughes might have for their contributions. Less impressive are Maggie Lacey and Ben Walker, as the young lovers supposedly at the center of this story; their Rachel and Cates have little personality and less chemistry, so who cares what happens to either of them? This isn't their story, anyway; in Hughes's hands, the only characters who matter are Brady and Drummond. And, with Brian Dennehy and Christopher Plummer in those roles, how bad can it be? I was seated in the front row (sure, my view was partially restricted, but who's complaining?), and once the music was over, the show's biggest thrill came from being so close to the legendary stars. That Brian Dennehy's characterization of Matthew Harrison Brady doesn't quite land is not really Dennehy's fault; he seems to be longing to show what lies behind that frozen grin of his, but the production, anxious to signal that its sympathies are with Cates and Drummond, is designed to cancel out any depth Dennehy might try to establish. This leaves Christopher Plummer's Drummond looking like the only three-dimensional figure in a field of cardboard cutouts -- with the possible exception of Denis O'Hare, as the newspaperman E.K. Hornbeck. It would be difficult not to find color in Hornbeck's poetic dialogue, but Hare brings so much personality to the stage you keep thinking he'll burst into song. (The man has had many Tony nominations already, but he really should have had another this year.)

I'd recommend that you read the play, but odds are you already have. And there's a reason for that. On the page, this play may be unfashionably lyrical, but it is also richer than this revival would have you believe. Take this exchange, from early in Act One:
RACHEL: Everybody says what you did is bad.

CATES: It isn't as simple as that. Good or bad, black or white, night or day. Did you know, at the top of the world the twilight is six months long?

RACHEL: But we don't live at the top of the world. We live in Hillsboro, and when the sun goes down, it's dark.
Cates is right, of course; life isn't as simple as Rachel wants it to be. But the play is only dramatic because Rachel has a point, too, and it would have been nice to feel a little of the darkness she's talking about. Not "darkness" as in "fundamentalists are scary, and still among us in 2007!" but "darkness" as in "life is hard, and there are no easy answers." The thrill of the courtroom scene comes from its even-handedness; Brady takes a drubbing, sure, but he gives nearly as good as he gets. He knows his stuff (although the playwrighs stumble badly in having Brady declare that sex is "considered original sin"), and it's hard to blame Hillsboro's citizens for buying into his vision of bright daylight. But this production recasts the battle as the urbanites vs. the rednecks, and thus misses the opportunity to comment on, recontextualize, or even reflect contemporary American political discourse; in the end it only reflects the sort of thinking that led us to our regrettably polarized state. And Drummond's famous speech about progress and its price ("You may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder, and the clouds will smell like gasoline"), even delivered masterfully by the great Christopher Plummer, has little impact here, because at no other point does the production ever intimate that embracing a six-month twilight has its own drawbacks.

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