One of the great pleasures of theater is seeing a revival of a classic play not only succeed on its own merits but also be relevant to modern times. Certain works such as The Crucible or Enemy of the People never stop being relevant, because the themes of neighbor turning upon neighbor or the lone voice of reason being suppressed by the powerful unfortunately reflect a constant of human behavior. Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s Inherit the Wind is another such show, with its contest between religious hysteria and science, which if anything reflects our current time more than when it was written in 1955. The new production at the Pasadena Playhouse is superb on all levels and is a must-see.
In the middle American town of Hillsboro (“the buckle in the Bible Belt”), set in a summer “not too long ago,” young high school teacher Bertram Cates (Abubakr Ali) has been imprisoned for teaching evolution, which has been made illegal in this unnamed, very Christian-dominated state. Bertram’s friend and fellow teacher Rachel (Rachel Hilson) is torn between wanting to help her friend and disagreeing with what he’s done. The upcoming trial has brought in two lawyers. The first, Matthew Brady (John Douglas Thompson), is a loud, Bible-quoting populist with political aspirations. The second, Henry Drummond (Alfred Molina), is an open-minded man who wants to preserve the rights to free thought and speech. Drummond has his work cut out for him in a courtroom in which the judge and jury are clearly aligned with Brady.
Hilson is very affecting as the young woman torn between her romantic feelings and her religious upbringing, and Ali is fine as the teacher who is unsure if he wants to be a prisoner of conscience. Chris Perfetti is cynical perfection as wisecracking critic E. K. Hornbeck, and Michael Kostroff is very funny as the somewhat inept Mayor. Molina modulates his excellent performance expertly between quiet moments and big explosive ones, surprisingly getting the most mileage from the wryly thoughtful exchanges. Thompson is amazing as Brady, oozing confidence, charm and power as he manipulates all around him, but it’s the moment in which he breaks down and collapses into self-pitying tears (“I hate it when they laugh at me”) that is the most telling and indelible image.
Michael Michetti’s direction is first-rate, from his imaginative and effective staging (with some of the audience onstage as court onlookers and the clever use of cast-members singing hymns popping up to create evocative moments) to the swift pacing that never lets this production drag. Omar Madkour’s diverse and smart lighting design adds a lot to the production, from flash bulbs going off in the theater aisle to represent a mob of press photographers to fluorescent tube lights for the courtroom.
Lawrence and Lee’s play holds up terrifically well, full of entertaining oratory and intelligent drama. Sadly, it was all too prescient about the idea of poorly educated, intolerant religious people teaming up with amoral political leaders – the battle depicted in this almost seventy-year-old play is still going on in the U.S., with replicas of it happening all over the country.
The play and this fantastic production insists that we need to keep fighting against this wave of encroaching darkness, and we do.
Inherit the Wind is presented by and at the Pasadena Playhouse and plays through November 26, 2023. Tickets are available here.