Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Evergreen’s ‘Inherit the Wind’ a case of undaunted courage

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Evergreen Productions_ _Inherit the Wind__2673596756581761359

PHOTO: A portion of the cast of Evergreen Theatre’s production of “Inherit the Wind” is pictured in dress rehearsal on the Webb Theatre stage at St. Norbert College. Evergreen Theatre photo

DE PERE, Wis. (WFRV) – A sturdy example of the power of plays can be found in Evergreen Theatre’s production of “Inherit the Wind” in performance through Feb. 21 at the Webb Theatre of St. Norbert College. Info: https://tickets.snc.edu.

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Creative: Playwrights – Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee; director – Curt Christnot; assistant director – Kristi Rolbiecki; stage manager – Monty Witt; set design – Nick Ferry, Curt Christnot; set dresser – Tricia Adams; costume design – Cyndee Reno-Wilson; props – Gretchen Mattingly; lighting design – Jack Rhyner; production coordinator – Kristi Rolbiecki; hair/make-up – Lois Gegare; dialect coach/history advisor – Tricia Adams.

Cast: Matthew Harrison Brady – Mike Horowitz; Henry Drummond – Eric Westphal; Tom Davenport – Eric Morgan; Bertram Cates – Daniel Beckwith; Reverend Brown – Ron Lhotte; Judge – Michael O’Callaghan; E.K. Hornbeck – David Wilson; Mayor – Lyle Becker; Mr. Bannister – Joe Schwaller; Elijah – Max Frost; Meeker – Keith Lutz; Mr. Goodfellow – Paul Goska; Howard – Nicholas Schroeder; Timmy – Lucas Brunette; Cooper – Tony Brunette; Dunlap – John Kindt; Sillers – Chris Weis; Reuters Man – Emmanuel Zamora; Radio Man – Jerry Lesperance; Rachel Brown – Laura Duescher; Mrs. Krebs – Jamie Shiner; Melinda – Jessica Goska; Mrs. Brady  – Cheryll O’Callaghan; Mrs. Blair – Rochelle VanErem; Mrs. McLain – Tammy Vevrick; Mrs. Loomis – Bonnie Kirschman; Walter Aaronson – John Nemick; Hot Dog Man – Adam Elmergreen; Dr. Allen Page – Brian Phillips; Mrs. Goodfellow – Judy Patefield; Mrs. Aaronson – Cyndee Reno-Wilson; Mrs. Page – Laurie Stimpson; Bollinger – Gary Wisneski.

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The power of “Inherit the Wind” comes in layers.

The courtroom drama is based on a real case that was somewhat a circus in 1925 but more importantly is historical. The case pitted strict biblical interpretation versus science. It pitted celebrity figures as opposing attorneys, with a journalist/literary lion (hated by some) on the sidelines creating an indelible label: “Monkey Trial.”

In part for how it deals with reason, the case emerged as a play during the era of Red-baiting by Wisconsin Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy.

The play is difficult to put on, particularly for a community troupe like Evergreen Theatre of the greater Green Bay area. Evergreen’s production has a cast of 33 performers. Most of the roles are not walk-ons but be-theres – the performers have to be there on stage in courtroom scenes staying in character and performing even though the focal point is the push and shove of testimony. It takes a powerful play to inspire that amount of commitment by many in roles that are thankless on one hand but essential in creating an aura on the other.

Extraordinary levels of commitment go into setting up the critical scenes when the two larger-than-life attorneys have at it like heavyweight boxers in a title bout. The power of “Inherit the Wind” rises to full force in the dynamic performances of Eric Westphal as defense attorney Henry Drummond (adapted from the real life Clarence Darrow) and Mike Horowitz as prosecuting attorney Matthew Harrison Brady (adapted from the real life William Jennings Bryan). Fur flies furiously as Brady thumps the Bible and Drummond gets thumped by Tennessee law as he defends a schoolteacher (Bertram Cates, adapted from the real life John Scopes) who is on trial for teaching Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Westphal and Horowitz dig into the attack modes of their roles and deliver volumes of heat, often volubly. Meaty lines are delivered intensely.

On the mark in other key roles are David Wilson as acerbic E.K. Hornbeck (adapted from the real life H.L. Mencken), Michael O’Callaghan+ as the Judge who tries to remain steady in this rock-the-boat case, Daniel Beckwith as determined teacher Bertram Cates and Laura Duescher as Rachel Brown, whose affection for Cates creates dilemmas for her with her fiery fundamentalist father, the Rev. Brown (Ron Lhotte). Many other performers add interesting tidbits in the public and courtroom scenes as townsfolk figures and visitors.

Director Curt Christnot does yeoman’s work keeping so many people committed, from youth actors to the leading players, even when action does not hum along as dramatic situations are set up.

The set work seems small-town slapdash, and it’s hard to tell whether that’s by design or from second thought because so much of the oomph of “Inherit the Wind” lies with the human characterizations in the complicated story.

Many community troupes would look at the casting requirements for “Inherit the Wind” and not think twice before putting the script aside. Evergreen Theatre pressed on. Perhaps that’s an act of courage. Or maybe it’s just that sometimes the power of a play makes the goal less daunting.

+ Evergreen Theatre often puts extra concentration in its pre-performance announcements – the “please turn off your cell phone” and other necessaries. This time, O’Callaghan is recorded delivering messages as a judge would expect in the way of decorum in his courtroom Clever.

AHEAD: (Mainstage): Michael Hollinger’s “Incorruptible,” May 1-9. (Young Actors): “The Snow Queen,” based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale, Feb. 26-March 1.

THE VENUE: The 184-seat Neil and Mary Webb Memorial Theatre is the smaller of two theaters in St. Norbert College’s Abbot Pennings Hall of Fine Arts. The Webb stage is one-of-a-kind thrust stage, meaning it “thrusts” into the audience space. A traditional proscenium stage has a flat front and usually has curtains. A trust stage rarely uses curtains. People in front rows can practically reach out and touch performers when the performers are on the stage lip. Any seat in the theater is close to the action.

THE PEOPLE: Neil and Mary Webb were husband and wife. Neil Webb was president of St. Norbert College from 1973 to 1983. He earlier headed the St. Norbert psychology department. He left academics for a while before becoming president of Dominican College in California. In December 1987, Neil and Mary Webb died in an airplane crash in California in an act of sabotage by a disgruntled employee. That was shortly before the Hall of Fine Arts was to be remodeled with a small theater in the plans. Neil Webb had a lot of friends in the community and had the reputation, so his name was used to raise funds for the theater.

Because I review a broad range of performances, professional and amateur, and because of the tremendous range of production budgets, I have decided to forego putting star ratings on performances. You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air segments on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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