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February 15-21, 2006

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Inherit the Wind

Photograph by Dave Lepori
Darwin Doings: From left, Paul Santiago, Chloë Bronzan and Kevin Blackton replay the Scopes Monkey Trial in 'Inherit the Wind.'

Hucksters And Believers

The debate over evolution gets an evenhanded airing in San Jose Stage Company's 'Inherit the Wind'

By Marianne Messina


KNOWING Inherit the Wind, by film or play, well enough to anticipate the great lines before they're spoken does not make San Jose Stage's Company's production of the Jerome Lawrence/Robert E. Lee play any less fascinating. In the play, Bert Cates (Bill Olson) is prosecuted for countermanding a Tennessee state law banning the teaching of evolution; the story is based on the actual 1925 trial famously called the Monkey Trial by H.L. Mencken.

The trial quickly becomes a circus when two nationally famous, "big city" attorneys arrive in the small town. Early on in the courtroom scene, the San Jose Stage production sends hucksters through the audience selling stuffed monkeys as well as hot dogs, a la a sporting event. Townspeople scatter into the aisles on all three sides of the venue's three-quarter seating to create an event that defies containment. These townspeople are much more formidable and less ludicrous than they're often portrayed. Exceptionally effective in her courtroom mutterings and church singing, Diahanna Davidson, in two roles as virulent, er, virtuous, townswomen (Mrs. Krebs, Mrs. Blair), sings her anthems with the kind of zeal that reproaches all those who don't join in.

Randall King as defense attorney Henry Drummond and Kevin Blackton as prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady offer serious character study in their interplay—Drummond keen and thoughtful, Brady charismatic and instinctive. Blackton plays up Brady's jovial, agreeable nature and his love of a good feed. To the townsfolk's fear of Drummond's arrival, Brady says bring it on, and Blackton seems to speak not so much from bravado as from a flexible sort of optimism.

Rounding out the Brady picture, Alison Lustbader's Mrs. Brady stands by his side, stunningly dressed to her elegant pearls and long white gloves (Eileen M. Barnes, costume designer). As she stands, piled up with her purse, Brady's jacket, Brady's accolades (great direction by James Reese), she conveys the sense of a woman subsumed by her husband's identity (though in stressing her solicitousness over her deep admiration, the production may have missed an opportunity to add depth to Brady's profile). Chloë Bronzan doles out a smoldering performance as Rachel, Cates' girlfriend. Perfectly miserly in her emotional displays, Bronzan maintains a soft-spoken manner that is slow, deliberate and sometimes broody to Bill Olson's bespectacled, toe-gazing Bert Cates.

This production highlights chinks in the steely fervor of the creationists by treating two incisive moments with an intriguing lighting device (lighting designer Michael Walsh). In the first, the preacher Rev. Brown (Paul Santiago) has worked himself into such a froth that he starts to call on hellfire to swallow the blaspheming Cates, and his followers cheer with escalating menace. Brady derails that train of hostility by admonishing the preacher, "It's possible to be overzealous." Shortly thereafter, in one of the most human scenes between Brady and Drummond, Brady asks, "Why is it, my old friend, that you have moved so far away from me?" And Drummond takes Brady aback with the response, "Perhaps it is you who have moved away—by standing still." Surreal single-colored backlighting isolates and transfixes Brown and then Brady in a moody glow as if they're exposed, in those instants, to an opening of some otherworldly window.

Richard C. Ortenblad's courtroom design, flanked by the compact combination bench/witness stand, leaves plenty of floor space (an impressive, stately marble tiling) for lawyerly pacing. Though this underscores the sense of grandstanding, the action in the courtroom scene never feels like caricature or parody, but more like theater-within-theater or even dance. In this, director Reese has hit on something of a small miracle of evenhandedness, so that Brady's demise at the end really warrants Drummond's comment, "A giant once lived in that body."


Inherit the Wind, a San Jose Stage Company presentation, plays Wednesday-Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm; runs through March 5 at the Stage, 490 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $20-$45. (408.283.7142)


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