By Doug Smith
Niagara Gazette — When Niagara Regional Theatre Guild decided more than a year ago to stage “Inherit the Wind” this month, the fates bequeathed it little something extra:
A mirror image of current events.
“Inherit the Wind” dramatizes the 1925 “Monkey Trial,” in which a Tennessee teacher — John T. Scopes — was indicted for the crime of referencing Charles Darwin’s evolution theories in his classroom.
And as the play opens a two-week run Friday night, a teacher in Cheektowaga goes to court in defense of what she maintains is her right to refer to Jesus Christ.
That the playdates bracket the beginning of Lent completes a trinity of topicality.
“We pick these a year or more ahead,” said board member Gary Gaffney after a weekend rehearsal. “We just wanted a good, solid drama that someone specifically wanted to direct.” He described the choice as “a crapshoot,” surely a word not in the vocabulary of the Bible-belting pastor he portrays.
Of the current Cheektowaga case — Joelle Silver was threatened with dismissal for posting Biblical verses in her classroom, and is claiming infringement of speech — “Wind” Director Fran Newton says, “It’s the same thing, just from the other side.”
He and his actors — Steve Jakiel as defense attorney Drummond, Niagara Falls comic-book czar Paul Benes as fiery prosecutor Brady and Michael Breen as the cynical big-city reporter Hornbeck — sit around discussing who’d answer roll call in “Inherit’s” courtroom today.
One lineup: Alan Dershowitz vs. Michele Bachmann, mediated by Bill O’Reilly.
Written in the mid-50s as a rebuttal to McCarthyism, “Wind” takes considerable license with the Scopes case, adding a love interest, the preacher’s daughter with a passion for a defendant. NU grad Maria Nicole Held has brought breathtaking charm to the character in rehearsals, Andrew Polino a heartfelt pragmatism to the teacher, branded as a heathen but claiming to believe in “a larger miracle.”
Also prominent – Randy Rumley as the illiterate but dead-certain Elijah, Eric Bloom as a justice who knows which side his gown is gilded on, Tom Durham as wise old bailiff, Brendan Cunningham as the self-important mayor and Rich LaBend as the voice of radio, an innovation in the time period.
(Ed. Note – By-liner Smith walks on as a haberdasher; some scenery in the play has more lines than he has.)
“Wind” blows for two weekends in the fully accessible Playhouse at 530 Ellicott Creek Rd., Tonawanda. For tickets, call 284-6358.Doug Smith has been reviewing Niagara Frontier theater since 1968. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.