'Inherit the Wind' remains powerful

November 27, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Because one of its characters is based on H. L. Mencken, "Inherit the Wind" would seem an ideal play for Baltimore. But because its cast includes three dozen characters, it also seems beyond the scope of most community theaters.

Director Barry Feinstein, however, has not let this challenge stand in his way at the Vagabond Players, where his production of this classic courtroom drama by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee boasts the largest cast ever crammed onto the Vags' small stage.

Under these circumstances, Feinstein admirably succeeds in keeping the actors from bumping into each other. What makes the production work, however, isn't the performance of the crowd, but the performances of the lead actors.

Herman Kemper portrays defense attorney Henry Drummond, the character modeled after Clarence Darrow in this fictionalized account of the famous 1925 anti-evolution Scopes Monkey Trial. His Drummond is a noble lawyer who defends principles instead of mere clients. He's a man whose idea of intelligence is knowing how to question, as opposed to knowing all the answers.

When Drummond's strategy is thwarted, after the judge rejects every single expert witness, you can almost see Kemper's mind whirring as he comes up with the notion of cross-examining his legal opponent, Matthew Harrison Brady, attorney for the prosecution.

As Brady, a character based on William Jennings Bryan, Bruce Godfrey has an easier task since the orator is portrayed as not only past his prime, but set in his ways. Godfrey's Brady combines the glad-handing manner of a career politician with the bluster of an orator so accustomed to public speaking that he's virtually lost the art of ordinary conversation. This is the perpetual candidate Mencken scathingly elegized with the words: "He was born with a roaring voice, and it had the trick of inflaming half-wits."

And yet, Godfrey and Kemper are quietly moving in the brief exchange when Brady asks Drummond what happened to their friendship.

The Mencken role -- crucial because it was Mencken who persuaded Darrow to take the case -- is portrayed by Pete Taylor, who adds a foppish air to the writer's innate cynicism.

Among the small pleasures of this large production is that Greg Kemper, who plays the pilloried evolution teacher based on John Thomas Scopes, is the son of the actor playing Drummond. On stage, this translates into the relationship of a fatherly mentor and his pupil, exemplified in the scene in which Drummond tells his client a be-careful-what-you-wish-for parable about a shiny rocking horse he coveted as a child.

For his part, Greg Kemper plays the defendant with an all-American-boy wholesomeness guaranteed to confound the play's fundamentalist rabble, who are convinced they know a sinner when they see him.

However, in the role of his girlfriend, the conflicted daughter of the local fire-and-brimstone preacher (played with proper gusto by Dave Manning), Jen Lillis overdoes her character's moral dilemma, appearing physically pained almost all the time.

After all the shouting is done and the verdict is in, Drummond says to his client, "You don't suppose this kind of thing is ever finished, do you?" In Tennessee, it took 42 more years to get evolution taught in the schools, and there are those who would still like to outlaw the monkey business.

As recently as last year, legislators in Tennessee tried to get a law on the books banning teaching evolution as "fact," and in our own back yard, a successful candidate for the Howard County school board responded positively to surveys about teaching creationism along with evolution.

Director Feinstein didn't make an effort to update "Inherit the Wind," but it doesn't take a modern-day Mencken to realize he didn't have to.

'Inherit the Wind'

Where: Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays; through Dec. 14

Tickets: $10

` Call: 410-563-9135

Pub Date: 11/27/97

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