Inherit the Wind is the most theatrically satisfying play revival of this season. The 1955 play is a highly fictionalized gloss on the 1925 “Monkey Trial,” in which John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. Scopes broke a Tennessee law that barred teaching “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.”
Director Doug Hughes makes this (and much else) crystal clear, doing the best work of his career in a production that brims over with vivid textures and personalities. Brian Dennehy intensely underplays the role of prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady (based on William Jennings Bryan, a turn of the 20th century presidential candidate), and Christopher Plummer conjures many colors for agnostic defense attorney Henry Drummond (based on Clarence Darrow).
While the play focuses on the contest between faith and reason, at its heart it’s a rueful tribute to Bryan, portraying his tragic journey from heroic politician to oblivious ultra-conservative joke. He is the character that “inherits the wind,” dying after winning the trial’s battle but losing the war against Darwinism. While this play doesn’t catch the complexities of Bryan’s inevitably self-contradictory politics, it successfully captures the tragedy of an egotistical idealist who outlives his time. That’s a message to you, Rudy.