Challenging ideas on stage in Oak Park
Jack Hickey (left), plays Henry Drummond, and Aaron Christensen plays Matthew Harrison Brady in Oak Park Festival Theatre's "Inherit the Wind". | Dan Luedert~Sun-Times Media
‘Inherit the Wind’
Oak Park Festival Theatre, Austin Gardens Park (in the 100 block of North Forest Avenue), Oak Park
8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 7 p.m. Sundays, with an additional performance at 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 11, June 14-July 16
Tickets: $25; $20 students and senior citizens; $15 for previews, June 14-15
Call (708) 445-4440 or visit www. oakparkfestival.com
Updated: June 8, 2012 9:15AM
More than 50 years ago, the Broadway drama “Inherit the Wind” used the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” (in which a Tennessee high school teacher faced prosecution for teaching the theory of evolution), to illuminate the repressive climate created by the Cold War-era McCarthy hearings.
Today, the play has lost none of its ability to stir up controversy about key issues in American life, said Oak Park Festival Theatre Artistic Director Jack Hickey, who chose “Inherit” to precede “Richard III” in the company’s politically themed outdoor summer season.
“Almost a hundred years after the events this play is based on, we’re still having the same arguments,” Hickey said. “More to the point, we’re still debating whether or not it’s a good idea to legislate the way people think. So, four months form a national election, it’s hard to imagine a better time to revisit those questions.”
Even setting aside the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings that inspired Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee (“Mame”) to write “Inherit the Wind,” the events of the Scopes Monkey Trial practically cried out for dramatization, if only for the colorful characters involved.
Super-lawyers (and former close friends) William Jennings Bryan (for the prosecution) and Clarence Darrow (for the defense) used the trial as a very visible platform to debate crucial issues regarding intellectual freedom vs. public trust and responsibility — with the young reporter H.L. Mencken on hand to provide color commentary.
Lawrence and Lee were clear from the start that their production was meant to be understood less as an accurate historical recreation than an explication of the ideas involved in the trial, a distinction they underscored by changing the names of the main characters.
The play’s courtroom histrionics might be its strongest dramatic selling point, but it could be argued that its longevity (“Inherit the Wind” is among the most produced of American plays, with four feature film adaptations to date) has more to do with its ongoing expression of concern about the core American issue of free thought and free speech.
“I think this play still has so much to say about the way we live today,” said Hickey, who plays the Darrow-inspired defense attorney Henry Drummond. “It’s always important to ask ourselves if we want to respect the rights of the free-thinking individual or safeguard a society that’s fixed in its ideas — even to the point where deviating from those fixed ideas can be viewed as criminal.”
Hickey said Festival Theatre, with veteran Chicago actor/director Steve Pickering (a former artistic director of Evanston’s Next Theatre) at the helm, is doing everything possible to give “Inherit the Wind” a fresh adaptation.
Pickering is staging the drama as if it were a no-frills production of the Depression-era Federal Theatre Project (another reflection on our current times), with settings suggested rather than fully displayed, and with cast members playing multiple roles. Also, in a nice contemporary touch, the role of the Mencken character, E. K. Hornbeck, will be played by Chicago actress Kimberly Logan.
“A lot of people know and love this play, and that’s wonderful, but we’re trying to stage it in a way that’s fresh and new,” Hickey said. “We’re presenting it in a way that lays out the arguments on both sides, so people can evaluate them and make up their own minds.
“We’re hoping people who don’t already know the outcome of the play, will be in doubt about where it’s going, because both sides present such strong cases.”