A play on timeless politics
- Published: June 11, 2015
The Yellow Springs Theater Company is completing its first season with a production of “Inherit the Wind,” which has been a stage favorite since it debuted in 1955 and was made into a film starring Spencer Tracy in 1960.
The script fictionalizes the famous Scopes “Monkey” trial of 1925 while addressing issues associated with 1950s-era McCarthyism. And while the play has clear specificities of time — references to the recent presidency of Woodrow Wilson, for example — in many ways it remains “out of time,” as its themes and conflicts continue to have relevancy within American culture and society today, said Ed Knapp, who is directing the YSTC production.
“The actual description within the play is ‘a small town, not too long ago,’” Knapp noted. “We’re setting it as contemporary as we can. We’re just kind of letting it be ‘a time period,’ not a certain time period. What sticks with you are the themes.”
The plot focuses on the conflict between creationism and evolution and how it should be taught in our schools — a question that remains surprisingly relevant on the current political landscape. Within the context of that debate, however, the play’s primary theme is the freedom to think and believe as individuals. “Are we allowed to think what we want to think?” is one of the overarching questions, Knapp said. “It’s not really an indictment of either side.”
Another theme is what happens to a community when it gets swept up in a conflict, and people are pushed to take a side. “Something that was supposed to be small becomes national, so it escalates,” Knapp said. “(The trial) becomes a show. One of the characters says it’s like Barnum & Bailey came to town.” The play explores how when “you push belief too hard, it can go to the fanatical.” It asks: “Do you really believe, or are you getting swept up?”
Knapp said that the result is the polarization that seems to define contemporary American politics. “The play shows the beginning of a time like we have today. With McCarthyism, all of a sudden, you couldn’t have debate. You had to be pro or con. Now you have to hate each other.” But most people don’t fit on one side alone, he said.
The political relevancy of the play “was one reason I wanted to do it now,” as the country gears up for the next presidential election. Knapp said. “This question is going to be asked again. … Are we allowed to think what we want to think? Are we allowed to speak what we want to speak?”
Nevertheless, and politics aside, “I’ve always wanted to direct this show,” the theater veteran and one of the founders of Yellow Springs Theater Company said. “It’s a great story — a very literary work.”
“And we have a terrific cast,” he added. Nearly 20 people have roles. “This show was our first chance to reach out (to the wider theatrical community). We have people from Dayton, Springfield, Troy and Yellow Springs.” Most have extensive theatrical backgrounds.
“I’ve been pushing the cast pretty hard,” he said. “We started rehearsals six weeks ago, and had it blocked within the first week. We’re getting a lot into the characterizations. Why did these two huge characters (the fictionalized depictions of Williams Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow), why did they come to Hillsboro to fight this fight? And what were each of their intentions?”
Yellow Springs resident Ali Thomas, an original member of YSTC, plays E.K. Hornbeck, the play’s version of notorious newspaper writer H.L. Mencken. “It’s the most fun role I’ve played ever,” she said. “The words I get to speak are very, very, very clever. And I’m personally not a clever speaker. My character is snarky, and it’s so much fun to be snarky.” She said she sees her character as rounding out the beliefs of the prosecuting and defense attorneys, Matthew Harrison Brady (Bryan) and Henry Drummond (Darrow). “Brady is religious. Drummond, you think of as an agnostic. I’m clearly the atheist of the lot.”
Amy Blue, also of Yellow Springs, said she is playing against type as the June Cleaver-like wife of prosecutor Brady. She is finding the experience rewarding and is “glad to be back on stage again” after a hiatus that included the start of a musical career, she said. Her last theater work was with Center Stage, and earlier she performed with Dayton Playhouse as well as in college theater. In her role with YSTC as Mrs. Brady, she first enters shaking hands with audience members in the assumption that they are townspeople.
The entrance is part of a staging that brings the audience into the proceedings. “It’s going to be a little more intimate,” director Knapp said. “The audience will be seated on three sides of the stage, with characters sitting amongst them. I’m really hoping that people will get caught up in it and even participate ‘respectfully,’ at various points.”
The company hopes that the more interactive seating also will help bring the play’s themes home to the audience in a personal way.
Knapp said “Inherit the Wind” offers a powerful conclusion to YSTC’s first year. The company presented its first production last summer with “D’arc comedy,” a work featuring Saint Joan of Arc. “Inherit the Wind” also concludes a season-long focus on faith,” Knapp said.
“It’s been a nice first season. We presented new things, local things. That’s one of the things our theater company does. For D’Arc comedy, it was the first time it had been produced outside Chicago. Our next production “Killers” was written by [Yellow Springer and YSTC member] Thor Sage. It had been read, but not produced. Then we presented the 10-minute plays. After that was “Godspell.” That was very interesting — an all-female production. And we’re rounding out with this. All had to do something with faith and how we deal with faith.”
Lorrie Sparrow, YSTC’s executive director and the producer on this project, said she is proud of the group’s first season and its concluding show. “It’s a great, great play,” she said. “It’s not a religion-bashing play. It deals with these galvanizing issues.”
Performances will be in the auditorium at Mills Lawn School. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, June 5, 6, 12 and 13, and 2 p.m. Sundays June 7 and 14. Admission is $10.
“We’ve all coalesced really well,” Knapp said. “At this point, we’re ready for an audience.”