Powerful courtroom moments in the open-air 'Inherit the Wind'

Arts and CultureJerome LawrenceH.L. MenckenArthur MillerClarence DarrowGroucho MarxMatthew Harrison

Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's oft-produced 1955 courtroom drama, based on the famous Scopes "monkey trial" of 1925, was intended — like Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" — to use earlier events in American history as a frame for examining the 1950s "Red Scare" hysteria. But when polls show a clear majority of Americans reject Darwin and with battles still raging over "intelligent design" in science curricula, the ideological battle in "Inherit the Wind" is no longer a metaphor. It's a by-the-book portrait of our contemporary culture wars, sans bloggers and air conditioning.

Director Steve Pickering's staging for Oak Park Festival Theatre in the company's traditional Austin Gardens setting loses the sense of confinement and stifling heat in the Hillsboro courthouse — the stand-in for the town of Dayton, where John Scopes was convicted of violating Tennessee's law against teaching evolution. Some of the taunts become less taut when one has to compete with overhead air traffic. (Though it makes the musings of Henry Drummond about how "you may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline" that much more apropos.)

But Pickering brings the action into the audience during the trial scenes by having townspeople sit next to us, fanning themselves and gasping as Jack Hickey's Drummond (based on renegade atheist defense attorney Clarence Darrow) clashes with Aaron Christensen's populist Christian orator, Matthew Harrison Brady (based on William Jennings Bryan). He also cunningly refocuses attention on the women on the perimeters of the story, most notably Rachel Brown (Emily Williams), Mrs. Brady (Susan Fey) and E.K. Hornbeck (Kimberly Logan).

Yes, Hornbeck (read: H.L. Mencken) is usually played by and as a man. But Logan's wisecracking world-weary reporter (or "critic," as she describes herself) takes a page from "His Girl Friday"and presents Hornbeck as a gimlet-eyed Hildy Johnson, a proto-pundit and feminist with no patience for what she sees as small-minded yokels yoked to Genesis. At points, Logan perches like Puck on the edge of Drummond's desk, one eyebrow at skeptical half-mast, as if awaiting a chance to unleash new verbal mischief.

The most chilling moment here comes courtesy of Rev. Brown's violent rejection of his daughter after she pleads with him for mercy toward the jailed Bert Cates. As Shannon Parr throws his daughter on the ground, we see that Rachel isn't just afraid of her father's harsh words — his fists have also undoubtedly landed on her over the years. Parr's hellfire-and-damnation persona stands in sharp contrast in that moment to the kindness of Mrs. Brady and of her husband, who seem genuinely aghast at how far Brown's imprecations against the "godless" have gone — not unlike some contemporary Christians confronting Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church ilk.

And yet, just as those who may be uncomfortable with the eliminationist rhetoric of religious fundamentalists will still pander to their fears and prejudices, Brady himself browbeats Rachel on the witness stand. Only Mrs. Brady's sharp one-word rebuke — "Matt!" — stops it. When Parr's minister sits malevolently in the audience at play's end, a military jacket covering his clerical garb, it's an effective (if somewhat heavy-handed) statement by Pickering of the increasing militancy of the religious right.

Hickey's Drummond still seemed to be searching for the right pacing on some of the attorney's Groucho Marx-like zingers on the night I attended. But Christensen's take on Brady — leaner and more emotionally austere than other versions I've seen — gives us some aching insight into a man addicted to the spotlight, and who is approaching the end of life with palpable fears that he is just a fossil of his former self.

ctc-arts@tribune.com

When: Through July 14

Where: Oak Park Festival Theatre, Austin Gardens, 167 Forest Ave., Oak Park

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

Tickets: $25 at 708-445-4440 or oakparkfestival.com

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