Written in 1955, the play “Inherit the Wind” could be set in modern times.
A chilling thought, perhaps, but all it would take is a few tweaks of the script.
The play, inspired by the 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial, pits two famous attorneys against each other in a heated courtroom battle.
On trial is mild-mannered Hillsboro High School science teacher Bert Cates (Torin Trout), who’s been jailed for reading excerpts of Charles Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” to his students. In Hillsboro, it’s illegal to teach evolution.
The drama, written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, is not only a stage classic, but was adapted into an award-winning Hollywood film.
This year’s crosstown play, now in its 16th year, opens 7 p.m. Thursday, at Capital High School auditorium and runs Nov. 8-10 and 15-17. The joint production features cast and crew from both Capital and Helena high schools.
The play opens with Cates in jail, where he is visited by his girlfriend Rachel (Emma Coble), the daughter of the local fundamentalist preacher. She tries to convince Cates to tell the town he was joking, but he refuses.
Pulling into town a short time later is three-time presidential candidate Matthew Harrison Brady (Seth Lang), known for his fiery oration who will team up with the local prosecutor. Brady’s character is modeled after William Jennings Bryan, who was a prosecutor in the Scopes trial.
Cates is defended by Henry Drummond (Chris Duffey), modeled after the famous trial lawyer Clarence Darrow who defended Scopes.
However, “Inherit the Wind” was not written to accurately recount the Scopes trial, according to playwright Lawrence, but rather as a metaphor for the trying times of the 1950s McCarthy era.
During McCarthyism, a number of people were betrayed by colleagues and friends, hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee, blacklisted and sometimes imprisoned for their political views.
In “Inherit the Wind” the playwrights used the trial and the teaching of evolution as a parable or metaphor, according to Lawrence. The play isn’t about pitting science versus religion, but about “the right to think."
The play is a favorite of both CHS drama teacher Laura Brayko and director Rob Holter of HHS.
It communicates “the idea that the two opposing lawyers talk to each other outside the courtroom and still have discourse, even though they feel extremely at odds with each other,” said Brayko.
It’s about being able to disagree with someone, but respect and see their viewpoint.
It’s also about thinking for oneself, she added. “As educators, we aren’t infallible. We’re merely showing them a portal through which they can enter to learn, investigate and question. It isn’t to blindly accept what we tell them.”
“This script asks you to look at your own presuppositions and ask, ‘Is this valid or is it not?’” said Holter
Holter produced the play in the 1980s and said that it was timely then and still is now.
He recalls overhearing conversations as people left the theater, asking their companions, “What did you think about that?”
He’s hoping for a similar reaction this time.
“To me the crux of the show is all about the right to think and speak and to labor at it.” said Holter. “Real thinking is very difficult,” because it requires processing information and reassembling it for oneself.
Duffey, who is a senior at HHS, sees some similarities between himself and his character Drummond. “I see Drummond as a straightforward, fact type of person.”
Drummond cares about the facts and truth, but also has religious faith.
Brady is driven by a desperate desire to hold onto his reputation, said CHS senior Lang.
“Brady has lost three presidential elections,” said Lang. “This is his last battle before retirement. He still has a lot of followers. If he loses his followers here, he loses everything. ...What matters to Brady is his followers and his legacy.”
The play has Lang examining his own world more critically, he said, asking himself if something he hears is “real” or just an “urban legend.”
There’s not only a message about communication and cooperation in the play itself, but also in the production of crosstown plays, since the schools are often sports and academic rivals.
A certain magic takes place that builds friendships between the cast and crew, say cast members and directors.
The crosstown play can be intense and stressful, but Duffey is finding he thrives in that environment. “I meet old friends and make new friends and create memories I will cherish.”
“It’s been an amazing treat to meet people like Duffey,” said Lang. Although crosstown plays can add a layer of chaos when the two schools come together, a lot of good comes from it.
The drama students from both schools collaborate on service projects, such as a recent Trick or Treat, So Kids can Eat food drive for Helena Food Share -- but they also support each other at statewide drama competitions.
Their cheering for each other is something other large schools from across the state marvel at during state drama competitions, said Brayko.
Tickets are $8 students, $10 adult and are sold at the door. They can be purchased in advance online: chsdc.booktix.com.