Theatrical courtroom tension transends time

The cast of Rider’s production of “Inherit the Wind” helped tell the story of the arrest of Bertram T. Cates, based on real-life events related to the historical Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes trial centered on the debate of teaching evolution in schools.

By Kimberly Ortiz

During the weekend of Feb. 22, audiences caught the classic 1955 play “Inherit the Wind” at the Yvonne Theater.

Directed by Professor of Theater Miriam Mills, the play pits evolution against the Bible and is based on the State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes trial in 1925 that drew national attention to the debate.

The play opened with a variety of video clips of today’s politicians and recent political events which previewed the topic of the play, showing how it is still relevant. The clips did a great job of introducing the subject matter to the audience, highlighting how “Inherit the Wind” was based on real events.

The opening scene jumped right into the story and showed the arrest of Bertram T. Cates, an event patterned after the real-life arrest of John Scopes. Played by senior theater performance major Nick Napoli, Cates is arrested on the spot for teaching his high school students the theory of evolution. Napoli’s performance of the character was one that showed both the confidence and fear of someone who is on the verge of being imprisoned, and allowed for audiences to sympathize with the character through Napoli’s realistic performance.

Rachel Brown, a teacher and the daughter of Rev. Jeremiah Brown, was played by sophomore musical theater major Victoria Brown. As Cates’ romantic interest, Brown struggles to support him while holding her belief that God created the universe. Her constant growth throughout the show makes her a dynamic character. The two teachers, who happen to be in love, discuss why Cates taught evolution, which would later be seen in his trial. From visiting him in prison to later appearing at his trial, Brown’s emotional and powerful performance allowed the audience to feel her pain as she struggles to control her feelings for a man that she truly cares about while still keeping her beliefs.

There were musical interludes of songs that reflected the time period. This allowed for smooth scene transitions that would soon build up to the tension of the final trial of Cates. These performances by musical theater majors sophomore Mariah Lotz, junior Nora Elkind and senior Anna K. Smith successfully shed light on a contensious situation, as well as brought a different form of entertainment to this otherwise straight-forward play.

Before Cates’ trial begins, the predominantly Christian characters, who disagree with the teacher’s actions, express their excitement for the arrival of Matthew Harrison Brady, the attorney who would soon be involved in the upcoming trial. Played by junior musical theater major Daniel Joseph Maldonado, Brady’s strong and professional ability to speak to the people of Hillsboro, Tennessee, shows throughout the play. Maldonado brought a variety of different emotions to the stage through the character, and injected a more suspenseful and powerful feeling to the play in the midst of an already sensitive subject.

While the courtroom and Cates’ trial are the main plotlines of the play, women take a major role in the controversial situation by assisting in the case. In the original script, Cates’ attorney is a man named Henry Drummond. Mills chose to switch the roles for this production and name the character Lucille Drummond. Mills’ gender change for the role worked extremely well, especially during a time where women were not always seen as successful in the work force. Junior musical theater major Shelly Lynn Walsh had a strong performance as the attorney fighting for Cates’ and others’ rights to freedom of thought. With Walsh’s ability to connect to one of the most relevant characters in the play, it’s no wonder that the judge of the case begins to lean to her side near the end.

Throughout all of the events that occur within the trial, ultimately it is Drummond who takes the case forward from Hillsboro all the way to the Supreme Court. Although the play ended on a sudden note, in the end Cates’ and Brown’s relationship was saved because Cates is no longer imprisoned, but rather is fighting against the $100 fine that the judge gives him.

The play’s relevance to today’s society was presented to audiences as it showed both Christianity and evolutionary beliefs. Whether it be 1925 when the original case was held or 2017 where politicians continue to state their beliefs, it’s no wonder that the play’s timing was, “Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow?”


Originally published in the 3/1/17 edition. 

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