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'Inherit the Wind' crackles with energy

Don Matthews stalks the set, a sweltering Tennessee courtroom, like an old lion, commanding his territory, marshaling his defenses, roaring. On the stage as in life, courtrooms are made for grandstanding.

But as celebrity defense attorney Henry Drummond in Camelot Theatre’s new production of “Inherit the Wind,” Matthews is only half the star power. The other half is old war horse Matthew Harrison Brady, the three-time presidential candidate and champion of biblical literacy brought to pulsing life by Paul R. Jones.

As he roams the two-tier set in shirtsleeves and suspenders, the tall Matthews, hunching to age his character, makes a convincing Drummond. He’s the point-of-view character, but if the play is to generate fireworks, the key is Brady. He must provide a worthy adversary for Drummond, who is based on famed defense lawyer Clarence Darrow.

Jones’s Brady, based on William Jennings Bryan, is a silver-tongued spellbinder now old and sick, but with an indomitable will and a closed mind. He’s the antagonist, but he’s not a villain, and Jones gives him a complex humanity.

Jeremy Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s play about the Scopes “monkey trial” and freedom of thought was written more than half a century ago about events now nearly a century past — high school teacher John Scopes was charged in 1925 with teaching evolution in violation of Tennessee law — but in this production directed by Roy Von Rains Jr., it’s still gripping.

In Hillsboro, Tenn., in 1925, nobody but Drummond has a problem with a big banner on the courthouse saying "READ YOUR BIBLE." The Rev. Jeremiah Brown (Buzz London), a fire-and-brimstone preacher, is rallying the locals here in the “buckle of the Bible belt.” The mayor (Tim Kelly) and local businessmen, in the way of small-town boosters, hope the sensational trial will put Hillsboro on the map.

In a subplot, the Scopes character, Bertram Cates (Jake Hastings) has a love interest in Rachel Brown (Brianna Gowland), who just happens to be the preacher’s daughter. Adding a generous dollop of cynicism is famed journalist E.K. Hornbeck (Tyler Ward), based on H.L. Mencken, who swaggers around the courtroom mocking the rubes and commenting on the action like a Greek chorus.

It was inconceivable to many educated people that a teacher would be hauled into court for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection in the modern times of 1925, and the American Civil Liberties Union had gone looking for a test case. By the time “Inherit the Wind” hit Broadway in 1955, the idea seemed even more remote.

Yet school boards around the nation still try to inject creationism into science curricula. And we love a good fight. And this was the O.J. trial of its day, even drawing a radio producer (Aaron Garber) for the first-ever national broadcast of a trial.

But the play isn’t primarily about evolutionary biology versus a literal reading of the Bible. It’s about freedom of thought. Red-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy had finally been censured by the U.S. Senate just months before the play had its Broadway debut in April 1955, and a lot of innocent lives lay in ruins as the era of McCarthyism was drawing to a close.

This “Inherit the Wind” crackles with energy while treating its characters with compassion. The exception is the malevolent Rev. Brown, whose rantings about hellfire and damnation (during which the lighting turns red) at one point are interrupted by Brady, who reminds the faithful that the Bible also has some things to say about forgiveness.

In a key scene, Brady, who used to be friends with Drummond, asks the latter why he moved away from the friendship. Drummond answers that movement is relative.

“Maybe it’s you who’ve moved,” he says, “by standing still.”

That’s Brady’s tragedy, and Jones infuses it with pathos. The times have passed by this fundamentally decent, one-time hero of the common man, who now stands revealed as an old fool. There are truly no winners here, but in the end, both Brady and Drummond are cloaked in dignity.

Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.

Paul R. Jones, left, and Don Matthews play lawyers Matthew Harrison Brady and Henry Drummond in 'Inherit the Wind' at Camelot Theatre. Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta