“Inherit the Wind” is inspired by the State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, better known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, regarding whether Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution could be taught in public schools. Based on the legendary show down between William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, “Inherit the Wind” features Matthew Harrison Brady (Steve Shelton) and Henry Drummond (John Liskey) as charismatic, eloquent figures battling with words like prize fighters. The arguments for and against the teaching of Biblical literalism versus science are eerily relevant today, and the sparring dialogue is just as sharp as when the play debuted in 1955. But Shelton and Liskey do little more than recite their lines — and at times struggle even to do that. There should be sparks during the courtroom scene in Act Two, when Drummond cross-examines Brady as an expert on the Bible. Here, Brady shows his confidence is merely hubris as he crumbles under a series of simple questions from Drummond. Instead of sparks, Sunday’s audience got a lukewarm exchange with all the intensity of a space heater.
Owosso’s last production, “Rock of Ages,” showed the company’s potential when the effort is made to cast and direct with vigor. But this production feels under-rehearsed at best, with actors speaking their lines without any sense of subtext or meaning beyond the literal words.
That spirit of literalism even affects the costumes and props. In an effort to make the play feel timeless, directors Linda Keenan and Anna Owens took the author’s notes — “It might have been yesterday. It could be tomorrow” — to mean removing any sense of historical context. Most actors wear contemporary clothes and carry cell phones and laptops while dialogue refers to an unprecedented radio broadcast of the trial. The result is a confusing and unnecessarily distracting series of anachronisms.
One of the strongest aspects of the production has nothing to do with the script. Musicians Rachael Cupples and Jeff Deason performed acoustic church hymns before each scene, setting a musical backdrop for the small Bible Belt town. The actual set, designed by Charlie Keenan, also works with a small town theme, creating a Main Street elevated over a cozy courtroom.
For all its flaws, “Inherit the Wind” still features a strong script. Much of Sunday’s audience gave the production a standing ovation and reacted positively throughout. But as the author’s notes say, this play is “not history (…) does not pretend to be journalism. It is theatre.” And the value of theater, of course, is in the eye of the viewer.
“Inherit the Wind”
Owosso Community Players
8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 11-Saturday, Nov. 12; 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13
$15/$13.50 seniors and students/$7.50 children
The Lebowsky Center
114 E. Main St., Owosso
(989) 723-4003, owossoplayers.com