Inherit the Wind
A production with Falcon Theatre at Incarnate Word Academy.
Highlights include our first use of the thrust stage, built entirely by students, which required actors to learn new blocking principles. Student designers pitched the concept of the show: a mixed time period in terms of costume and props, with Hillsboro set in the 1925 like the original Scopes Trial and characters from outside of the town in modern dress. This idea led to the tweetstorm of the final showdown, filmed and projected for the performances.Students did original research, guided by our first student dramaturg, on the original case and the performance history. Our freshman understudy for the role of Mary (Matthew) Harrison Brady stepped up after the original cast member left the show to complete all performances.
The performance script for Inherit theWind has a lot of instructions and explanations that the authors have added through the decades in response to controversies or misunderstandings of their work. Here at IWA, the students like to joke that, “We don’t care about stage directions here!” That may be a fair statement for most shows we put on, but there were two of these instructions that I treated so seriously that the production team and I spent weeks -- months -- pondering them.
The first was the instruction to keep the town visible throughout the play, as on trial as Bertram Cates himself. So the courtroom and the town square must both be visible at the same time. Maybe in a huge theatre like the Hobby Center but here at IWA? That challenge resulted in the semi-thrust staging you see in the audience now -- so don’t be surprised if the lawyers and jury members sit down right next to you. Welcome to Hillsboro, you’re part of the action now!
In the end, this extension into the audience also helped with the even more bewildering instruction at the beginning of the play:
“The stage direction set the time as ‘Not too long ago.’
It might have been yesterday. It could be tomorrow.”
The show is a period piece based on events that took place in 1925, and I’m supposed to set it in “yesterday or tomorrow” of 2019? We considered throwing out the 1920’s entirely and setting it in the modern day, but for crying out loud, there is a subplot about the first live event to be broadcast on the radio! How could this possibly work?
Over time, the designers and assistant directors helped to talk me through the tangle and ended in a place I’m quite proud of. Most of our characters are costumed to fit rural Tennessee of the 1920’s, but out of towner or “ahead of their time” characters are dressed in modern fashions, as if the modern world is invading “heavenly Hillsboro” and challenging them with brand new ideas.
After all, Twitter has revealed a surprising number of people who have decided, as Drummond would put it, to “ban Copernicus along with Darwin” through the #flatearther movement. Yes, in 2019, we’re still convincing a large portion of the population that the Earth is round. The tweets you see flashing across the screen before and during the show are mostly real, and they aren’t from decades ago either. Perhaps Lawrence and Lee are right -- we will always need their play!
So the design ends up as a hybrid between the two time periods, hopefully highlighting the tension between the traditions of Hillsboro and the new-fangled science descending on them.
But, in the end, what feels most anachronistic about the play is the tenor of the debate. It’s beautifully written, of course, with both sides given deep thought and grand emotions to play. Both sides are full of worthy ideals and righteous anger. But what feels striking in 2019 is that Brady and Drummond never allow the debate to descend into personal sniping.
The two chief debaters for each side are former friends who have moved further and further away from one another in their political beliefs. And they fight fair. Whenever the Reverend Brown or E. K. Hornbeck start getting nasty or engaging in personal attacks, Brady and Drummond both put a stop to it. They remind their followers that:
“The Bible also tells us that God forgives His children. And we, the Children of God, should forgive each other.”
“You have no more right to spit on his religion than you have to spit on my religion! Or my lack of it!”
In that way, the message of this play is very timely indeed. May we never forget that fighting for what we believe in does not require us to hate or demean our “enemies”. Our ideals are strong enough on their own. We are clever enough to win our case with the truth. Our beliefs should inspire us to reach higher...not drag us and our opponents through the mud.