A town divided. Religion butting heads with science. A court battle over what should and should not be taught in schools. These are things that can still be found in modern-day headlines, but they’re also at the center of the classic play Inherit the Wind, presented by Dallas Theater Center at Kalita Humphreys Theater through June 18.
Inspired by the infamous Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925, it depicts the happenings in a small town where a teacher, Bertram Cates (Ace Anderson), stands accused of violating a law against teaching evolution in a public school. The ensuing trial gains such attention that it draws three-time presidential candidate and religious crusader Matthew Harrison Brady (Liz Mikel) to prosecute the case, with the equally famous lawyer Henry Drummond (Kieran Connolly) taking up the defense.
The trial and its surrounding talk soon turn from the strict legality of the offense, which should be cut and dried, to a referendum on whether religion and science can coexist. Everyone from the town’s reverend to its shopkeeper weighs in with his or her opinion, with the two high-profile attorneys egging them on.
The Tony Award-winning Dallas Theater Center is known to be fearless about the material it produces, how its productions are staged, and whom is cast in central roles, but Inherit the Wind may represent the epitome of that ethos.
The stage is dominated by a massive painting of a bleeding cartoon monkey with a cross stuck in its back, accompanied by “Read Your Bible” scrawled in red paint. In comparison, the rest of the stage dressings are minimal: just some chairs and the brief presence of tables in the second act.
This absence of sets puts the focus directly on the acting, which is stellar from top to bottom. Mikel and Connolly have the showiest roles, and they both make the most of them, but other standouts include Alex Organ as a visiting reporter, Chris Hury as the town’s mayor, Vince McGill as Rev. Jeremiah Brown, and Tia Laulusa as his daughter, who has a complicated relationship with the accused.
DTC has long engaged in racial fluidity in other productions, and recently had its first female Scrooge in the annual production of A Christmas Carol. But director Kevin Moriarty ups it a notch here with Mikel inhabiting the role of a man, Akin Babatunde playing his wife, and Ana Hagedorn playing a young boy. It works seamlessly, with nothing remotely controversial about those choices, unless you choose to focus on them. Instead, it's the performances that are notable, especially in Mikel's case.
But what makes the most impact is the story itself. It's tempting to think of the plot as dated, especially with references to a train arrival and other period-sensitive details, but its messages are as relevant as ever. Inherit the Wind was written in 1955 by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, and had its world premiere right here in Dallas. But the setting is specified as simply "Summer. Not too long ago."
The action onstage reiterates how the more entrenched people are in a certain mindset, the less likely they are to listen to someone else’s point of view. The idea of open and honest communication is one that should always be celebrated, no matter what’s being discussed.
Inherit the Wind continues in Dallas Theater Center’s grand tradition of bringing fresh takes to classic material, something it does especially well.