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Theater review: 'Inherit the Wind' misses the mark

Over the last year or so, Camelot Theatre has had a run of very strong productions. "Sweet Charity," their most recent musical, was a real triumph. In 2015, the excellent "Solomon's Blade" (originally conceived at the Ashland New Plays Festival) was a strong commentary on the assumptions that tear apart contemporary culture. Camelot's programming has, of late, been reliably excellent, and has set a high bar.

That being said, Camelot's "Inherit the Wind" — that perennial playhouse favorite first staged in 1955 and set in the small Southern town of Hillsboro — falls short. Overall, the production seems a little dry. It may have been an off night, considering some of the other favorable reviews currently being published. On the evening that we were in attendance, many of the actors seemed under-prepared, either plodding through (and, in one case, consistently flubbing) their lines to such an extent that there was a sense of tension and uneasiness in the overall presentation, or overacting to a point where a serious play — based on the Scopes "Monkey" Trial of 1925 and designed as a subtle rebuke to McCarthyism in 1950s America — came over as campy and comedic. 

In an election year, it is probably tempting to take a piece like "Inherit the Wind" and turn the players into cartoon versions of themselves, and that temptation was apparently too strong for director Roy Rains Jr. to resist. The small-town religiosity of the Bible-thumping characters in the play is treated with disdain. Those who take the secular humanist approach are mostly presented as condescending, intellectually superior and spiritually barren. As such, this critic was forced to make his decisions about the motivations of the various players within 10 minutes of taking his seat. After that, there wasn't much else to do but suffer through to a fairly predictable outcome.

Thankfully, the play did not entirely disappoint, thanks to the strong acting and broad shoulders of the three leading male characters. With 25-plus artists on stage, the strongest performance came from Don Matthews as Drummond, a nationally known attorney in town to defend a local teacher, Bertam Cates (Jake Hastings) who has dared to integrate Darwinism into the school curriculum. In addition to Mr. Matthews, there were exemplary performances from Paul R. Jones as Matthew Harrison Brady, another lawyer of national renown brought in to defend Christian values in the town, and from Tyler Ward, a longtime Camelot performer, playing E.K. Hornbeck, a reporter from the Baltimore Herald, in town covering the case.

Don Matthews is an actor to be reckoned with. His Drummond is a stoic fellow with a passion for logic and processes over flag-waving and religiosity. Matthews' physicality and vocal presence are a credit to the production; he acts as an anchor in a sea of performers, and brings a much-needed center to the show. 

Paul R. Jones does a good job as the obsequious embodiment of traditional Christian piety in his portrayal of Brady, a man who takes full advantage of the warm welcome he receives from the sympathetic townsfolk, most of whom share his world view. Brady wastes no time at all in building himself a soapbox on which to stand, raining fire and brimstone onto the hapless Cates. It's a reap-what-you-sow insight into the mind of the petty proselyte, an interloper into the land of faith; Brady is obviously a man with an earthly agenda that far outweighs his commitment to the Divine. 

Tyler Ward provided a characterization of Hornbeck that was wise-cracking, cynical, and altogether delicious to watch. He's a hat-to-the-back-of-the-head, old-school journalist who refuses to back down on a story. He's deeply suspicious of religion, and he has no problem showing his contempt. In a town with a dangerous predisposition towards theistic group-think, Hornbeck emerges, in many ways, as the bravest person in the story; Ward is a strong actor who takes his character into juicy territory, using whatever he can find in his environment to add shade and color to his character. He was never boring to watch.

"Inherit the Wind" is a famous play for a reason. In a year when seditious politics are in daily evidence, it's worth remembering that there are good people on both sides of the culture war, and that our country has, and will, survive. Despite a problematic early run, it's likely that Camelot's latest offering will hit its stride shortly. As such, it's worth making a trip over to the James M. Collier Theatre and giving this show a try.

 Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.