Christopher Plummer shines in the Broadway revival of the 1955 courtroom drama Inherit the Wind. The play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee is a somewhat fictionalized recounting of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Tennessee, where a substitute high school biology teacher was indicted and tried for teaching Darwin’s theories of evolution in his classroom.
In the story like the actual events a high powered tough attorney Henry Drummond (Christopher Plummer) based on the great Clarence Darrow is financed by a northern newspaper and brought into defend the teacher. The prosecution is headed by Matthew Harrison Brady (Brian Dennehy) a stand in for the real life William Jennings. As written the character of Drummond dominates the action and the play delivers a haunting message about bigotry.
Although the drama was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize the play is now dated, but in the right hands could still be persuasive, even gripping theater. Over the years there have been many parings of the two powerful attorneys giving seasoned actors opportunities to excel. Spencer Tracy was luminous in the 1960 Stanley Kramer film and more recently the 1996 Broadway revival with George C. Scott and Charles Durning was praised for its excellence.
Christopher Plummer as Henry Drummond in the current production is in a league of his own and few members of the seasoned cast rise to his level. His performance is a textbook exercise in living in the life of the play. He turns in a deeply committed nuanced portrayal that emanates from his soul. His Drummond is struggling with the effects of age and the 97 degree heat of the courtroom, but you nonetheless feel the fire in his belly, the outrage at the unjust situation, and his knowingness that here is a case where no one will emerge a winner. Granted he has the better role and the playwrights have given him many astute retorts, but every time he speaks he humanizes the evening for us and you realize his superior achievement.
Mr. Dennehy is no match for Mr. Plummer turning in a limited performance that misses on several counts. We get no sense of his self importance or his clawing need to win. This man was a defeated candidate for the presidency three times and the strain needs to show otherwise his breakdown at the end doesn’t work. We need to seem him fighting with every fiber of his being, but Mr. Dennehy, all smiles, is covering nothing. There is no depth to his Brady and everything comes too easily. We never sense this is about his survival and he completely forgets to play the heat.
The revival has been handsomely staged by Doug Hughes with a wonderful recreation of an old southern courtroom by Santo Loquasto. Members of the audience sit on wooden risers just upstage of the action behind the row of jurors lending a chorus like theatrical flair to the proceedings. Center stage at the top of the risers a gospel quartet begins the evening with a song that sets the tone for the unfolding events and you quickly realize that if the script hasn’t stacked the deck sufficiently, Mr. Hughes will take care of that with a representational. The raucous townspeople carry large signs as if they were headed for a lynching and applaud for Dennehy at every opportunity. There are isolated images of a few of them that are eerily lighted by Brian MacDevitt, and at one point they actually converge with torches.
Mr. Hughes has made the evening even more predictable with this dehumanizing production the feels as if he has neglected the actors in the huge cast and painted in broad strokes instead. He won the Tony Award for a highly acclaimed 2005 production of Doubt, but he has done five productions in the last two seasons and I wonder if his creativity is suffering under the strain of overwork.
Our tastes have become increasingly sophisticated and without a worthy opponent Christopher Plummer’s beautifully crafted performance is not enough. You marvel at his skills, applauding his efforts, but never once are we compelled by the events of the courtroom drama because of the imbalance.
As a religious argument the message remains. Look to the Deep South and the Bible belt where little has changed. The religious arguments still exist. Zealots want to take our country back over 50 years and ar attempting to create legislation based on their interpretations of the
…by gordin & christiano
Originally Published in Dan's Papers
Inherit the Wind opened April 12, 2007 at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. For tickets call 212-239-6200, or visit the box office.