Monday, March 3, 2014

Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee

By Joe Straw

He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind: and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart. – Proverbs 11:29 – King James Bible

This is my first venture to the Grove Theatre Center in Burbank.  On a map, find the intersection of W. Olive Avenue and N. Victory Boulevard.  The first street north of W. Olive Avenue is W. Clark Drive.  Take a left and find a large parking lot to your left.  Drive to the end of the parking lot and look for a building that looks like a theatre.  There’s a sign outside as well. All this is important to know because you don’t want to miss this great cast giving an inspired night of theatre.

Wasatch Theatrical Ventures presents Inherit the Wind written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, directed by Kiff Scholl and produced by Racquel Lehrman, Theatre Planners through March 16, 2014 at the Grove Theatre Center in Burbank.  

This theatre in a park looks a lot like a community theatre, and is a small black box venue.   Upon entrance the stage is bare.  The minimal look designed by Adam Haas Hunter, features some drawings on the upstage wall of a political cartoon and Darwin’s drawing from On The Origin of Species.   My first observation when I sit is: this is just about the actor creating a life of his/her own making. I pray the acting is above par, and hope for the best.

But something happens after the first few moments of this bare stage production, the actors start filling the space, giving us rich characters, real people, and all living a unique life working toward a common goal.

Never underestimate theatre in Los Angeles.    

The play starts with a young man, among the dirt and grime outdoors; Howard Blair (Dutch Hofstetter) discovers a worm and presents the wiggly, slippery, slimy object to someone of his affections, Melinda (Rachel Werline).  Howard mentions something about worms crawling up from the muck, to monkeys, to human, as he places the worm in her face. She in none too pleased, squeals at his nasty antics, and runs off, although slightly enamored by his display.  

It is a very interesting place to start, at the beginning, life’s beginning with the birth of a thought, and from there, a notion of what’s to take place.  Director Kiff Scholl’s evolution starts right there, moving from a direction of ignorance into a state of enlightenment.  

Rachel Brown (Laurel Reese), the preacher's daughter, slightly more mature in body and less in mind, carries a package of shirts for her boyfriend.  She asks the jailer Meeker (David Reynolds) if she could see her love Bert Cates (Robbie Winston) a man in jail for teaching evolution.   Their meeting is an embarrassing situation for both. He is grimy, sweating in a hot cell, on this humid Hillsboro summer for sake of his convictions.  And she is uncomfortable for matters that are entirely different.  

“Why can’t you be on the right side?” – Rachel

But Bert, having second thoughts about being in jail or being with Rachel, decides jail is his best option. In reality it is his principle that is the focus of his attention. He takes the shirt and goes back to jail.  Still, this does not bode well for the evolution of their relationship.

No matter, the townsfolk anticipate the arrival of former presidential candidate Matthew Harrison Brady (Robert Craighead) and his wife, Mrs. Brady (Rosemary Stevens) coming in on the train.  They are all part of the same flock led by Reverend Brown (Alan Brooks) and wait for their savior to deliver them from the unspeakable horrors of knowledge, and enlightenment.

And as the townsfolk run to greet their deliverer, an odd man with unusual ideas enters the common fray, E.K. Hornbeck (J. Richey Nash), a reporter from the Baltimore Herald.  He is satirist embedded to write about his observations, and he publicly acknowledges the proceedings will be a sham and a waste of the taxpayer’s money.

Naytheless, Matthew Harrison Brady, large and encumbered, with his wife by his side, totes the Bible in one hand, if not literally, figuratively, and a plate of food in the other, much to the dismay of Mrs. Brady, who manages his girth, and wants to keep him around for a few more years.

The Mayor of Hillsboro (Edmund Wyson) greets Mr. Brady and honors him with the title “Colonel Brady” as set forth by the provisions of the state much to the enjoyment of the Christian onlookers standing nearby.

Tom Davenport (Amir Levi) introduces himself as a lawyer that will be assisting Mr. Brady during the course of the trail.

When it is learned that Henry Drummond (Mark Belnick), a noted lawyer and former friend to Brady, will be working for the defense, Brady, slightly worried, accepts the challenge.  And with pie in hand Brady finds his first witness in the likes of Rachel Brown, Bert Cate's girlfriend, and takes her along for questioning to his hotel. It is a step in a rather curious direction to gain a foothold in a trial he does not want to lose.

“Why is it, my old friend, that you’ve moved so far away from me?” – Matthew Harrison Brady

“All motion is relative, Matt.  Maybe it’s you who have moved away by standing still.” – Henry Drummond

Donald Agnelli is the Judge, who notably has a thankless task, while there are two lawyers fighting for the heart of the nation. His justice is not blind, because he lives and works in this bible carrying community.  In reality, we know the side he is on.  Agnelli does well as the Judge although there may be other creative choices that would highlight the Judge’s conflict.   Still this tall statuesque actor holds his own in this battle, and does a fine job.

Mark Belnick plays Henry Drummond a highly respected lawyer from Chicago who has brought the fight with him to battle a former presidential candidate.  There’s only one problem, the Judge won’t let him bring any evidence into the hearing. (Southern Justice) Still Drummond has enough fight in him to establish a legacy in this important fight, to defeat the law and establish lasting change by winning this case.  Belnick is a litigation lawyer in real life and with that experience behind him, I was curious to watch the actor play an attorney.  This adds to the night of interesting observations. At first Belnick appears uncomfortable with the physical life of this lawyer and is not completely comfortable with the character’s movements on stage. On this particular night, the concentration was off, the physical life and movement was not directed to the intended parties in meeting the objective of the character. Still there was a moment when the lights went on, when physical met mental and an astute analysis of the given moment made a heck of a lot of sense.  It was in this moment when the life of Drummond soared, and we got the implacable courage of this character. And it was also the moment when Belnick took complete control.  These are the moments you live for when venturing out to theatre.

Steven Scot Bono plays George Sillers an employee of the feed store. Bono completes the cast in the way that makes this production remarkable.  

Alan Brooks is Reverend Brown a man of the cloth who gathers his flock to protest the goings on in the courtroom. He is there for the good of the land, the people, the nation, and the world.  But, with that, he leaves behind his daughter with his passions set for the common good and temporary loses her until another day. Brooks is a fine actor with a number of wonderful moments in this play.

Robert Craighead plays Matthew Harrison Brady, a man who is mistaken for the second coming. Brady is a former presidential candidate with a grand way with words and an appetite to feed his strong vocal machine.   He is there to placate the masses of the willing followers.  Craighead has a powerful voice, an unmistakable presence, and is an unforgettable actor.  

Scott Golden has a variety of roles as the Reuters Reporter, Jesse H. Dunlap and Esterbrook and each role is entirely a unique character filled with wonderful creative choices. Golden make the most of his limited time onstage with these characters and is extremely funny as Esterbrook.   

Nicholas Goldreich plays Bill Bannister, has a good look, and does a fine job making the most of his matters on stage.   

Dutch Hofstetter plays Howard Blair. Hofstetter gives Blair has a slightly daffy persona and it works well in this performance.  Hofstetter is clear and concise in his objective and there is not a wasted moment in his limited time on stage.  

Amir Levi is Tom Davenport one of the prosecuting attorneys.  Levi has a strong voice, sometimes overpowering for this small venue.  And as the character he got his point across more times than not.  But the ill-fitting thick black glasses on his face appeared to sit high on his nose.  Instead of seeing his eyes, we saw his eyebrows.  (Maybe a slight exaggeration.)  And one would have to guess for what purpose.  To make the character slightly foolish when his objective is to win the case at any cost.  Still Levi did a very fine job and had a number of marvelous moments.  

J. Richey Nash plays E.K. Hornbeck with panache.  (That rhymes.) He is a reporter/critic who reviews the theatrical experience that is the trial. Hornbeck’s manner in which he does his job (one would guess by total recall) is an excellent choice by Nash.  And the manner in which Hornbeck relates to the other characters also makes for terrific work.  Hornbeck’s presence is slightly disarming to the townsfolk.  A complete deipnosophist, left alone, not to be invited for a southern home cooked meal to share his wisdom. How tragic. But Hornbeck appears to be a devilish character to the town folks, stepping his red hoof, to get a toehold into this Christian community.  They are not amused by his antics (and perhaps they should be at times).  Still they just let the devil walk right on by. Nash’s work is marvelous.

Laurel Reese plays Rachel Brown, the preacher’s daughter and the love interest of the man on trial.  Rachel is caught between the love of those two men and her religion is the conflict that keeps her at bay.  This is a tricky role that has this particular actress on the floor, center stage, crying her eyes out, with hardly anyone to help her, when at this time she should be pleading for help, either from her father, or her boyfriend.  Rachel knows what she wants, she has a choice she must make, but she must make absolutely sure she is making the right choice, in order for the tears, center stage, to work.

David Reynolds does some good work as Meeker/Elijah.  Reynolds has a distinctive look and his characters work well in this locale.

Suzan Solomon has a nice voice as Mrs. Blair, a parishioner and strong believer. She makes the most of the scene changes and does a fantastic job.

Rosemary Stevens is excellent as Mrs. Brady.  Mrs. Brady does her best to keep her husband away from the food because she knows it will do him more harm than good. Mrs. Brady presents a rather impressive form.  She is the wife of a former presidential candidate and hopes that one day they will get to the White House.  Stevens bring a vivacious life to Mrs. Brady, filled to the brim with life, hope and the deepest well of sincerity. It’s just downright terrific work.

Rachel Werline plays Melinda, has a strong presence, and a quirky manner as one of the townsfolk.

Robbie Winston is Bert Cates, the man who is in prison for teaching evolution. Cates is resolute in his principles and will stay in prison no matter the cost.  He is strong but seems beaten by the attention he is receiving and not from the one that matters most, his girlfriend. Winston has a very good look and a quiet manner that may work well in this industry.

Edmund Wyson plays the Mayor and does some very nice work.  The Mayor is a man who has higher aspirations.  Not set on being a small time mayor he oversteps his authority by appointing Drummond the honorary title of “Colonel” and, without state approval.  This deed worries him to death.  Wyson gives a terrific performance.

Kiff Scholl, the director, does a fantastic job.  This is a large cast and for the most part the entire cast fit, working together to give us a great night of theatre. There is an interesting moment when Matthew Harrison Brady says God talks to him.  The moment is hardly acknowledged either by the people in the courtroom or by Drummond.  

The southern accents varied.  In real life, the play is a fictional account of the Scopes Monkey Trial that takes place in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925. But Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, the writers, give us Hillsboro, a sleepy country town in a non-defined state and maybe that accounts for the variety in accents.  My preference is Tennessee accents, from the citizen of this town, and, growing up in Tennessee, I was hard-pressed to find one on this night.  

Racquel Lehrman, Theatre Planners is the Producer of this fine production.  Victoria Watson of Theatre Planners is the Associate Producer.

Michael Gend is the Lighting Designer.

The Costume Designer is Shannon A. Kennedy does an outstanding job for this production.  A lot of hard work went into dressing the characters appropriately.

Matthew Richter was the Sound Designer.  There’s a lot here to play with in terms of sound but I found it satisfactory.

Nora Feldman is the Publicist.

Peppur Chambers did an excellent job as the Casting Director.

Amber Bruegel was the Production Stage Manager and Erica Lawrence is the Assistant Stage Manager.

Run!  Run!  Run! And take a Unitarian Universalist if you happen to think about it.

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