Review – Inherit the Wind – Old Vic (2009)

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On Wednesday I went with J and Amy to see Inherit the Wind at the Old Vic Theatre. It had had fairly good reviews since its opening, and though that encouraged me to see it, the fact it was a dyed in the wool “old chestnut” and the rather painful cost of undiscounted tickets made me think that this was going to be yet another show at this venue I took a pass on in favor of a future, more affordable production. But Amy encouraged me, and, well, I’m really not too hard to convince to see a show (unless it’s something yawningly commercial, or an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, in which case I’ll choose reading at home over going out, even for free), plus she found some £15 seats “partially obstructed by a column.” I couldn’t help but think it was Kismet (even though it was actually not a musical at all), so off we trucked to Waterloo via happy hour at Cubana (two mojitos for £4.95, yum!).

The plot of this show is inspired by the Scopes monkey trial, a famous American court case in which a high school teacher was prosecuted under Tennessee state law for the heinous crime of teaching evolution (and out of a biology textbook, too), but with the name of the teacher changed as well as the state and other pertinent details to make it clear it’s merely “inspired” and not “based on.”

It’s billed as a courtroom drama, and much of the best dialogue does take place as arch-conservative and bible thumper Mathew Harrison (David Troughton) attempts to grandstand during his various witness examinations , while defense attorney Henry Drummond (Kevin Spacey) fights back by arguing that the law itself is unjust – not that his client is innocent. In short, it’s “uphold the moral fabric of our society” versus “man must be allowed the freedom to think his own thoughts,” conservatives versus liberals on a stage of their own making, with nary a lick of true concern for the person in danger of imprisonment.

While this revival was done in honor of the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” in fact the core conflict between science and “the beliefs that uphold our social values” has just recently proven itself very much alive with the dismissal of David Nutt for scandalously asserting that alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana (somehow using. science to support his beliefs, rather than toeing the government’s anti-drug line). Will people in power use their efforts to suppress the views of those whose opinions counter their policies even when science backs them up? All I can say is, if he’d been Copernicus, you can damned well bet they’d have been lighting a bonfire to burn him on.

Ahem. Anyway, the story was deliciously topical, but, even better, the story was much more than just two lawyers duking it out; there was also a great underlying conflict between the teacher and his girlfriend Rachel Brown (Sonya Cassidy), the daughter of the town’s preacher. She wants to please her dad, but also wants her boyfriend to just say he was wrong so things can get back to normal. Unfortunately, Cassidy played the role just a bit too hysterically. Where was her arc, where her ups to go with her downs, where her middle? I could sympathize with the point of view she represented – and she did make the townsfolks’ attitudes seem more plausible – but she was just an actress saying lines on stage and never really came to life as the character

To some extent it seems she was taking her cue from Mr. Spacey, as his Henry Drummond was, every limping, shuffling, hunched-over minute, an actor who was playing, not to the back of the stalls, but to some point across the street (possibly La Cubana). I couldn’t figure out why he had to be so heavy-handed – the Old Vic isn’t exactly stadium-sized. Troughton, in comparison, was most perfectly the larger-than-life character that one would expect a washed up, evangelical, former politician (with current political goals) to be – his was a life lived as if on a stage, and his performance perfectly captured the reality of this type of personality. Perhaps Spacey felt the need to upstage him, but his clumsiness failed to hit the mark, and when even the preacher hit his role better, Spacey was left looking like the weakest point in a fairly good evening.

The entire production benefited from a gorgeous, realistic set with amazing depth, and a staging that included piles of Americana – church singing, outdoor suppers, lemonade stands, and prayer meetings, to name a few (and impeccable accents other than Nutt’s occasional slip into Brooklynese). The singing was actually enjoyable – one of the few times I’ve seen a play done with music that added to the production instead of feeling like a clunky afterthought. It all felt very … well, professional, very much English-style theater. I can see why it’s been packing in the punters night after night, especially the school groups (whom I imagine running home to laugh about those backward Americans and not so much actually discussing Darwin like I imagine their teachers hope they will). But what bothers me is that it seems not nearly enough people are actually taking home the real message of the play, of the value of conscience over the will of the state, and of the never ending conflict of science and “hysteria knows best.” At least, I like to think, amidst the shame of the still ongoing battle about biology instruction in America as the church tries to take over the state, we’re at least coming out as a country where people will take a stand against unjust laws, and people will stand up for science no matter what lawmaker finds it inconvenient. I can only hope people in this country do the same.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, November 4th, 2009. Inherit the Wind continues at the Old Vic through december 20th, 2009.)

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