Underappreciated Broadway drama to be put on by Calgary’s Simply Theatre company from May 20-28

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

So says the namesake verse and overarching moral of Pumphouse Theatre’s latest play: Inherit the Wind.

The story begins in “Heavenly Hillsboro,” the “buckle on the bible belt,” in 1925, with a schoolboy by the river, hunting worms to use as fishing bait. A classmate wanders by, remarking on the filth of this activity.

“You know, you was a worm too, once,” he says in defence. Thus begins the next two hours of controversy and debate — evolution verses fundamentalism in a heated discourse almost as old as our notions of God.

Rachel Brown (played by Larra Caldie) shares a tender moment at the beginning of the play with her beloved, Bertram Cates (played by Cody Field), a schoolteacher charged with contravening a 1925 Tennessee law by teaching Darwin’s evolutionary theory instead of creationism. Rachel’s strong faith brings her to question Bertram’s motivations, tearing the two lovers apart. Photo by Michaela RitchieAnd it promises to be a stunner.

Originally debuted at Broadway’s National Theatre in April 1955, with a cast and crew that included the likes of Paul Muni, Ed Begley, Tony Randall, and Herman Shumlin, the production has been revived on Broadway twice since, and inspired four screen adaptations over the past six decades.

Suffice it to say, it’s a story that director Dale Hirlehey has wanted to tell for a long while — since 1999, in fact, when he was first introduced to the most recent translation of the work, starring Jack Lemmon, George C. Scott, and Beau Bridges.

But the timing never seemed quite right for Hirlehey on the project. Something always got in the way, that is, until recently.

“We had just closed She Kills Monsters back in February, and we didn’t have another played lined up, so we said, ‘Well let’s do one right away!’ So we phoned Pumphouse, but they only had this set of dates available, and it was in the bigger of the two theatres.

Director Dale Hirlehey, who has been the artistic director of Simply Theatre for over 20 years, was previously nominated for Outstanding Direction of a Play for their production of Twelve Angry Men, another courtroom drama, which took Best Ensemble at Calgary’s 2015 Community Theatre Awards. Photo by Tyler Ryan“So I just sort of dove in and said to my co-founder, ‘What if we did do a big show in the big venue? What if we did Inherit the Wind?’”

Hirlehey, who was previously nominated for Outstanding Direction of a Play for his work on Simply Theatre’s production of Twelve Angry Men (which also brought in a 2015 Calgary Community Theatre Award for Best Ensemble), has long been in love with the intimate intensity of the courtroom drama.

“I love the debates, and to know that this was a real story, in a sense, makes it even more interesting to me,” he says of the show.

However, he knew that he would require a massive cast in order to pull it off. Luckily, he found his leads shortly after booking the venue, in Dorin McIntosh and Gregory Spielman, both locally renowned showmen.

“It was just completely fortuitous that the people we were looking for were available, and wanting to do it — as the audience will see, there were a lot of people that we had to acquire for this.”

Gregory Spielman, who has previously been seen on stage in roles such as Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd, Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and most recently Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, takes on the challenge of Matthew Harrison Brady, a renowned lawyer and three-time presidential candidate. The man is a mountain — something of a religious superstar to the Hillsboro townsfolk. They are relying on him to prosecute schoolteacher Bertram Cates for his crime: teaching evolution in a fundamentalist classroom — a grave offence in Tennessee in the 1920s.

Inherit the Wind is renowned for its classic exploration of religion versus science. In this scene, Rev. Jeremiah Brown rallies the townsfolk behind him in a holy war against Cates, the teacher charged with teaching evolution, and his “godless” lawyer Henry Drummond (played by Dorin McIntosh). Photo by Michaela RitchieMcIntosh, who plays opposite Spielman as Cates’ equally charismatic defence lawyer Henry Drummond, singles out the role, and the play at large, as a performance of intense depth.

“It’s a wonderful challenge to get to play a character like this, to whittle away at them and see what’s working and what’s not working. I just love the exploration of it all, becoming somebody else for a while,” says McIntosh.

Indeed, exploration is one of the main themes of the play, as the cast and crew work tirelessly to guide the audience closely on a journey not just through the ideological confines of the American South, but through thought and feeling, and finding the balance between tradition and progress, between creationism and evolution.

Although the story of the debate itself is more than 90 years old, Hirlehey points out that it may now be more relevant to audiences than ever before. In a modern political landscape where rallies against racial and religious groups are becoming more prolific in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, Hirlehey says this play teaches the audience a valuable lesson about taking beliefs at face value.

“What we don’t understand, we often shy away from and push against,” he says. “Everyone, when they grow up in their own little bubble — and this town is in many ways just that, because we’re talking 1925 that it’s set in, so it’s not like everyone can be wandering around and travelling and diversifying their beliefs — the belief system of that bubble is what you grow up with, and so you can tend to get stuck in it if you aren’t careful.

In a reflective moment in the courtroom, Henry Drummond tries to convince Rachel Brown of her fiancé’s unwavering morality, which has been thrown into question by his desire to think freely, without religious constraint. Photo by Michaela Ritchie“I want the audience to think for themselves,” Hirlehey says of his motivations for the production. “The best plays don’t always have a nice, neatly wrapped ending, where everybody should always end feeling a certain way. But if done right, those plays will leave audience members with an entirely differing view than what they came in with. That’s what we aim to do here.”

To be clear, Hirlehey, who at one time taught Sunday school in his hometown of London, Ont., does not sway to either side of the argument about whether creationism or evolution should be taught to young students. He hopes that the arguments presented in the show, rather than divide the audience as they do the characters in the play, bring together two vastly different ideals in a pleasant harmony.

Photo courtesy of Simply TheatreHis villain, in the end, is the notion that there has to be any villain at all.

“Belief in something beyond just this is not a bad thing for anybody,” he says, “but that is belief, not fact, and that’s what this story is all about. You shouldn’t be arguing fact versus fantasy. It’s like apples versus tow trucks — they’re just so far out of the realm of a comparable thing.”

As one wise character remarks early on in the production: “I don’t have opinions, bad for business.”

After previewing the show for a preselected audience of high school theatre students on May 19, Inherit the Wind will officially open May 20 with a running from 7:30-10 p.m. Subsequent shows will take place May 21, 22, and the next week from May 25-28, for a total of nine shows. Tickets cost $13 for the matinee performance (2-4:30 p.m.), or $22 for evening shows, and can be purchased online on the Pumphouse Theatre’s website, or by phone at 403-969-6956.

mritchie@cjournal.ca