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Evolving Issue

Focus of 'Inherit the Wind,' about Scopes trial, is still relevant.

March 16, 2000|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In 1925, Tennessee schoolteacher John T. Scopes was tried for teaching Charles Darwin's theory of evolution--a direct violation of a state law, passed only months earlier, against teaching anything contradicting the creation of the world and origins of man as set forth in the Bible.

The trial attracted national attention, not least owing to the presence of incendiary Baltimore newspaper columnist H.L. Mencken and the participation of two nationally prominent attorneys: three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution, and Clarence Darrow (his fees covered by Mencken's paper) in Scopes' defense. Scopes was convicted; the conviction was upheld.

Thirty years later, "Inherit the Wind," playwrights' Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's dramatization of the Scopes trial, played on Broadway, and it's been a favorite ever since, with a good production concluding this weekend at the Arts Council Center in Thousand Oaks.

Is the play relevant? You bet: The law Scopes was convicted of breaking remained on the Tennessee books until 1967; and last year--a longer chronological distance from the play's debut than the play was from the trial--the Kansas Board of Education voted to severely limit evolution as a curriculum topic.

"Inherit the Wind" is the third play produced at the Arts Council Center by Standing O Productions, its predecessors being excellent renditions of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "The Elephant Man."

It, and director Georgeanne Lees, have scored again, thanks in good part to the capable actors playing Bryan (Michael Jordan, better known as director of several shows at the Center, as "Matthew Harrison Brady"), Darrow (Rob Goldman as "Henry Drummond") and Mencken (Preston Sparks as "E.K. Hornbeck").

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The large supporting cast is fine, too, with Eric Martin as the Scopes surrogate; Melissa Wotkyns as Scopes' girlfriend, Rachel Brown; and Marq Del Monte as her father, the local preacher. Chad M. Smith's stage set includes a turntable; this may be a first for the tiny Arts Council Center.

A problem with the play is that it is quite one-sided, portraying the townsfolk (and, by extension, Christian fundamentalists) as boobs and loons and Bryan as little more than a publicity seeker; both characterizations may be true to some extent, but onstage it makes "Inherit the Wind" more of a tract than an attempt at a reasonable discussion of whether religious conviction and free speech can comfortably coexist.

Many would argue that an artist is expected to have a point of view; still, it's possible to respect a point of view without agreeing with it, a feat that seems to have eluded playwrights Lawrence and Lee.

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Conejo Players Reward Themselves: The Conejo Players, the county's oldest continuing group (Ventura's Plaza Players evidently is in hiatus) honored their performers and backstage people--all volunteers--with awards Saturday night.

Of the approximately 120 people gathered backstage at the Players' theater, most received citations for longevity and excellence of service--25 years' worth in the cases of Herm Detering, Dick Johnson and Jeanne Murry.

Six people--Erin and Mark Fagundes, Doug Jocelyn, Tommy Johnson, Lee Manko and Don Pearlman--were named Honorary Life Members of the Players board. Honors are awarded by the board, and there is evidently no specific standard other than excellence.

The Conejo Players opened their 49th season last year; this was the 25th edition of the annual awards.

DETAILS

"Inherit the Wind" continues tonight through Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Arts Council Center, 482 Greenmeadow Avenue (off Moorpark) in Thousand Oaks. Tickets are $12; $10, students and seniors, and capacity is limited. For reservations or further information, call 381-2748.

Todd Everett can be reached at teverett@concentric.net

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