Only a few years and a few hundred miles separate the settings for Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird from Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee’s Inherit the Wind, even as both overlap on Omaha stages this month. The first at the Playhouse, the second produced by Brigit Saint Brigit Theatre.
Moreover, both plays explore abiding prejudice in rural America. Lee’s, although fictional, set in the early 1930s, is based on observations of her own Alabama experiences. Inherit the Wind explores an actual historical event in Tennessee in 1925. Each also centers on courtroom drama.
The 1955, three-Tony award winning Inherit the Wind recreates many of the elements of what became commonly called “The Scopes Monkey Trial.” High school teacher John Scopes was accused of violating a state law against teaching evolution. Famed defense lawyer Clarence Darrow took on his case. Thrice-presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan stood for the prosecution. The issues pitted people who held that evolution was not inconsistent with religion against those who insisted that words of God in the Bible were the final authority over all human knowledge. Among the many reporters drawn to this major event was renowned acerbic H.L. Mencken, whose prose often seemed more satirical than objective.
Lawrence and Lee personified those people, respectively, as Bert Cates, Henry Drummond, Matthew Harrison Brady and E.K Hornbeck, among more than 30 characters. The playwrights made it clear that they were not aiming to literally recreate history but rather to relate to their own time. McCarthyism was poisoning America. They sought to defend intellectual freedom when it seemed under attack. Their script concerns “the dignity of every individual mind and a life-long battle against limitation and censorship,” they said. “It’s not about science versus religion. It’s about the right to think,” Lawrence added.
FYI, the title comes from The Bible, Proverbs 11:29: “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart.”
Given such a quote and how religious issues come to the fore in this play, Brigit Saint Brigit is not only producing it in a church, First Central Congregational Church, but also closely collaborating for what’s called a “Science And Spirituality" Colloquy, intended to explore “relationships between mind and spirit,” according to Pastor Scott Jones. "We humans possess the power to think, yet many fear thoughts that challenge faith," he observed. These talks go into how using our minds “is an expression of our faith. . . spirituality and academic pursuits encourage one another.”
The first production of Inherit The Wind, one of the most produced plays in American theatre, ran more than two years on Broadway and there have since been two new productions on Broadway, as well as a much acclaimed film version. The New York Post called the play “a colorful, picturesque and absorbing, exciting essay in dramatic Americana."
Lawrence and Lee were prolific writers, collaborating on Auntie Mame, along with the book for the Jerry Herman musical, plus immensely successful The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. There were 37 other works, including 1956’s musical adaptation of James Hilton's Lost Horizon (Shangri-La) and Dear World, a musical adaptation of Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot.
Certainly airing such feelings about faith, as in this classic, remains food for thought. A kind of communion.
Inherit The Wind is performed through Sept. 25 at First Central Congregational Church 421 South 36th Street. Fri. & Sat.: 7:30 p.m. Sun: 2 p.m. Tickets: $20-$25 http://www.bsbtheatre.com/