Society generally accepts Darwin’s theory of evolution. Nevertheless, there remain pockets that deny its validity—the state of Tennessee, for instance, recently began teaching creationism in schools. With the origins of man still a controversial topic, McGill student Annabel Raby decided to direct Inherit the Wind: a play examining both sides of the current debate through a dramatization of the Scopes trial that addressed these topics almost 90 years ago.
Before the first line is uttered, the audience learns of the narrative’s focal point. A small-town courtroom in rural United States fills the stage, and the seating squarely situates the audience as attendees of the judicial proceedings. The lawyers address the crowd, imploring us to hear their case. This setup leaves the audience to do the jury’s duty. The cast of characters is varied, from hillbillies with slow drawls and banjos, to the outside visitors who comprise many of the play’s principal characters. The ethos of the town of Hillsboro itself is displayed on its church sign during one scene: “Think it’s hot here? IMAGINE HELL.”
Bertram Cates (Matt Smith) is a schoolteacher on trial for corrupting the minds of his young students by reading an excerpt of Darwin’s The Origin of Species. The soft-spoken intellectual doesn’t seem to merit imprisoning. Even the bailiff seems to agree, and allows him to meet his paramour, Rachel Brown (Katie Scharf), who, conveniently, happens to be the preacher’s daughter. Throughout the trial, she is torn between her fundamental Christian values and the man she loves.
On the eve of the trial, several outsiders arrive in the small town. Mary Harrison Brady (Emily Doyle), a three-time failed presidential candidate, is given a heroine’s welcome. No surprise here—she fits in with the rest of Hillsboro, a town where signs issue the stern warning, “Read your bible.” Doyle’s performance is nuanced and convincing: she handles both despair and witty repartee with ease. Her courtroom opponent is Henry Drummond (Samuel Steinbock-Pratt), an agnostic from the big city who the townspeople see as the devil incarnate. Another visitor is the deadpanning E.K. Hornbeck (Matthieu Labaudinière), a reporter who delivers some of the show’s biggest laughs.
For the most part, the production is both enjoyable and thought-provoking. The single drawback is the play’s narrative: it often feels like a rushed court case, and the conclusion wraps up somewhat abruptly. Nevertheless, individual performances carry the piece. Doyle and Steinbock-Pratt show themselves to be able performers, with adept interpretations of characters who are sympathetic towards each other’s positions, while remaining in vehemently proclaimed opposition. It was also pleasing to see subtle directorial touches evoke the rural Southern setting. A live guitar, banjo, and violin are used to frame a bygone era, while the people and crickets of Hillsboro chirp in the background of midnight encounters. In short, the atmosphere and acting make up for any shortfalls in the script.
The conflict in Inherit the Wind pits two concepts against each other: science and belief. The narrative itself doesn’t present either as the ruler over the other; it leaves it up to the audience to evaluate each position. Whether Bertrand Cates wins or loses is left up to you.
Inherit the Wind runs Nov. 21-24 at 8 p.m., Player’s Theatre (3rd floor SSMU building). $6 for students and seniors, $5 with a clothing donation.