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“Inherit the Wind” had its Broadway debut in 1955. The play became a film in 1960, was performed three times on television, in 1965, 1988, and 1999, and was revived on Broadway in 1996. Since its initial production, “Inherit the Wind” has been presented by numerous touring companies and regional theaters, among them Washington, D.C.’s own Arena Stage in 1973. This celebrated production, at the completion of its D.C. run, traveled at the behest of the U.S. State Department to the Soviet Union and appeared before appreciative audiences in Moscow and Leningrad. From now until Nov. 5, “Inherit the Wind” once again has a home in Washington, this time at Ford’s Theatre. Chances are that many, if not most, of the theatergoers who will be filing into the historic auditorium on 10th Street will have already experienced the play in one of its previous incarnations. Familiarity, in this case, is unlikely to breed contempt. Truth is, “Inherit the Wind” has attained the stature of a secular passion play. Attendance for many is more than a night at the theater — it’s an act of devotion and a celebration of the ideal of intellectual freedom. Although inspired by the antics of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, “Inherit the Wind,” as its authors Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee were scrupulous to point out, is not history. The published script of the play contains a note from the playwrights that includes this explanation: The events which took place in Dayton, Tennessee, during the scorching July of 1925 are clearly the genesis of the play. It has, however, an exodus entirely its own. Only a handful of phrases have been taken from the actual transcript of the famous Scopes Trial. Some of the characters of the play are related to the colorful figures in that battle of giants; but they have life and language of their own — and, therefore, names of their own. The authors’ coy demurrer notwithstanding, it’s all but impossible not to equate Henry Drummond with Clarence Darrow, Matthew Harrison Brady with William Jennings Bryan, and E.K. Hornbeck with H.L. Mencken. If Lawrence and Lee were unable to convey the legal subtleties of Tennessee v. Scopes in “Inherit the Wind,” they certainly captured the case’s broad lineaments: A high school teacher standing trial for violating a law against the teaching of evolution in public schools is defended by the nation’s foremost trial lawyer and prosecuted by a three-time candidate for the presidency and the nation’s favorite stump speaker. The turning point of the trial comes when the defense lawyer goads the prosecutor into taking the witness stand and humbles him with his searing examination. As Lawrence and Lee have attested, “The collision of Bryan and Darrow at Dayton was dramatic, but it was not a drama.” Perhaps. But it was as close to a drama as real life is likely to get. In retrospect, what seems truly remarkable is that it took 30 years before some clever and skillful playwrights turned the courtroom clash between Bryan and Darrow into a drama. Given the inherent potency of its source material, it’s no wonder that “Inherit the Wind” immediately won over critics and audiences alike, a popularity that has only grown with the passing of the years. Few 45-year-old plays are treated with such reverence. If Timothy Childs, the director of the production now appearing at Ford’s Theatre, ever was tempted to try to breathe new life into the now sacred script with gimmicky stagecraft, for the most part he wisely resisted. (His sole transgression was the way in which he chose to end the play. Childs misguidedly places on the stage in the final scene a character that Lawrence and Lee never intended to be there and assigns him some crucial stage business. I attended a preview performance and can only hope that Childs comes to his senses and restores the play’s original ending for the rest of the run.) For the most part, though, Childs keeps such tinkering to a minimum, apparently smart enough to put his trust in the organic power of the play and his cast. As much as audiences seem to embrace “Inherit the Wind,” so, too, do actors. With three particularly meaty roles, it has always attracted the big reputations and the big talents — Paul Muni, Melvyn Douglas, Ed Begley, Spencer Tracy, Frederick March, Gene Kelly, George C. Scott, Jack Lemmon, Charles Durning, and Tony Randall, for example. James Whitmore and Robert Prosky can now be added to the list. Whitmore has the gravitas demanded for the role of the crusty civil libertarian Henry Drummond. Renowned for portraying on stage such historical figures as Harry Truman, Will Rogers, and Teddy Roosevelt, Whitmore is therefore especially well-suited for taking on Clarence Darrow’s doppelg�nger Drummond. His performance is expansive without being excessive. How he manages to walk that thin line is no doubt the secret of his acting prowess. Whitmore is lucky to be linked in the performance with Prosky. Perhaps not as nationally celebrated as his co-lead, Prosky is an accomplished trouper revered by Washington audiences for his many roles over the years with the Arena Stage. In fact, Prosky in this current performance is reviving the role he played nearly 30 years ago in the Arena’s production of “Inherit the Wind.” His performance as the bombastic Matthew Harrison Brady is perhaps more understated than Whitmore’s but no less effective. Jay Edwards, another Arena Stage veteran, portrays the blustery E.K. Hornbeck. Edwards brings some freshness to his part by tempering the ego-driven Hornbeck with just a tinge of nerdishness. The play’s only substantial role for a woman goes to Caitlin Muelder, who plays Rachel Brown. In many ways the recipient of a thankless part — much of her time on stage is spent either in paroxysms of confusion or tears — Muelder acquits herself admirably, as does the rest of the cast, who fill out the gathering of small-town residents and court officials. The restored Ford’s Theatre is an audience’s dream. The small auditorium allows for an intimacy that few modern theaters offer. Yet, its tidy dimensions must present some hardships to those who must work with, and on, its relatively undersized stage. Credit must therefore be given to set designer Douglas Huszti, who has no doubt solved some sticky logistical problems with an inventive combination of ramps, risers, and picket fences. “Inherit the Wind” at Ford’s Theatre has much to recommend it. Childs has orchestrated a briskly paced entertainment that provides a showcase for the talents of its two stars, James Whitmore and Robert Prosky. All the qualities that have earned the play its popular success over the years, and then some, are on display in this enviable and enjoyable production.

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