Collected Classics: ‘Our Town,’ ‘Inherit the Wind’ share APT summer stage

Collected Classics: ‘Our Town,’ ‘Inherit the Wind’ share APT summer stage
BECCA MARTIN-BROWN
bmartin@nwadg.com


“He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.”

— Proverbs 11:29

As an actor, Michael Weir is a force of nature. You know that if you’ve seen him as King Herod in “Jesus Christ Superstar” or Tito in “A Comedy of Tenors” or John D’Agata in “The Lifespan of a Fact.”

But you’ve never seen him more commanding that he is as Matthew Harrison Brady in the Arkansas Public Theatre production of the classic “Inherit the Wind.”

Jonah Michael Morgan also plays Bertram T. Cates, a school teacher arrested and accused of breaking Tennessee law by teaching Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and Mia Nave is Rachel Brown, a fellow teacher who is torn about her feelings, in “Inherit the Wind.” (Courtesy Photo/Chad Wigington)

The play, being presented in repertory at APT in lieu of a summer musical, is a fictionalized account of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial. Playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee wrote “Inherit the Wind” as a “response to the threat to intellectual freedom presented by the anti-communist hysteria of the McCarthy era,” summarizes a project at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. “Lawrence and Lee used the Scopes Trial, then safely a generation in the past, as a vehicle for exploring a climate of anxiety and anti-intellectualism that existed in 1950.”

The character of William Harrison Brady was based on William Jennings Bryan, and Weir as an orator with the cadence of a Baptist preacher keeps the audience on the edge of their seats.

All that being said, however, Weir may have met his match in a newcomer to APT, Marissa Culbreath. In “Inherit the Wind,” she is his meek, supportive wife. As the Stage Manager — the narrator, Greek chorus and principal character — of “Our Town,” she commands the stage in a much quieter but equally compelling way.

Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” opened on Broadway in 1938 and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It is a quiet play, an intimate look at the personal lives of a tiny town called Grover’s Corners, N.H. It opens with a birth and ends with a death, just like real life.

“I don’t think at the ripe old age of 17 years I did appreciate the beauty and simplicity of ‘Our Town,’” says director Ed McClure, who reveals he appeared in a production in high school. “Now the poetry of Thornton Wilder seems madly wild beyond his years.”

In this iteration, McClure says, “I just wanted to peel back all the layers and let the words be the star of the show. The staging and production is very stark. Viewers never have to suspend disbelief because they are constantly reminded they are seeing a play.”

Michael Weir is prosecuting attorney Matthew Brady Harrison and Robert Mayfield is defense attorney Henry Drummond in “Inherit the Wind,” appearing in repertory with “Our Town” this summer at APT. (Courtesy Photo/Chad Wigington)

“I always grew up as the loud and outspoken kid who always wanted to tell stories,” says Culbreath. “That made me perfect for the role of the Stage Manager. I am glad that this role allows me space to tell the story in my voice and style. I love to just be myself, and this experience has really let me do that, even though I’m ‘acting.’”

Culbreath admits appearing in two plays that rotate rehearsals — and performances — every other day “can get a little overwhelming, and at times I wish I was at home with my family at night. But I have to say, as someone who is learning more and more about the theater world, this was probably the best introduction I could have had. It’s given me a good amount of experience very quickly.”

McClure is rotating the directing job with Brenda Nemec, another veteran of APT, who has piloted “Inherit the Wind.”

“It is much easier for Brenda and I; we don’t have to rehearse every night,” McClure says. “Hard for the actors. We tried hard to cast one actor in a large role for one play and a smaller role in the other play. It is clearly a challenge for the actors, but I think they are enjoying the challenge!”

Stevie St. John is Emily Webb and Jonah Michael Morgan is George Gibbs, young lovers who grow up, marry and face death in “Our Town.” (Courtesy Photo/Chad Wigington)

“My first memory of ‘Inherit the Wind’ was in college, and I’m not sure it had a real impact at that time,” says Nemec. “I was involved in another production 25 years ago and remember really thinking about where creation and science intersect. This is my second time being involved with ‘Inherit the Wind’ at APT, and each time I reread Genesis and think about this ongoing argument.

“I try to just present the words of the playwright as sincerely as possible,” she continues. “‘Inherit the Wind’ presents an age-old argument, but to me doesn’t try to make a political statement. I feel like both sides are presented well, but sometimes we become blind to any other views but our own.

“In our current world everything seems very polarized,” Nemec muses. “I think we just need to sometimes take a step away from what we have always thought and believed and try to see another side. Not saying you have to change your belief, but try to understand why someone may believe differently than you! We all have to live together in this crazy world, and it is so much nicer when we can be kind to each other as well.”

As for Weir, he says simply he’s “so happy to have found a theater home at APT,” this time playing not only Brady in “Inherit the Wind” but also Mr. Webb, the newspaperman, in “Our Town.”

“I’ve watched the movie version of ‘Inherit the Wind’ with Spencer Tracey multiple times,” he says. “It’s one of my favorites. The scene where the prosecutor is put on the stand and questioned about the Bible is fascinating to me considering it’s based on a real world trial. ‘Our Town’ was a bonus. I’ve really enjoyed revisiting that show — which I last did when I was in college.

Marissa Culbreath (center) as the Stage Manager stands in the cemetery, surrounded by the dead of Grover’s Corners, N.H., in the Arkansas Public Theatre production of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 classic,”Our Town.” (Courtesy Photo/Chad Wigington)

“Mr. Webb in ‘Our Town’ has a very sweet, kind and loving relationship with his daughter. I really enjoy playing those scenes,” Weir says. As far as “Inherit the Wind,” Weir downplays his work. “I’m not the best speech giver in real life, but my character is the consummate orator, and that’s fun to play.”

Robert Mayfield, who plays defense attorney Henry Drummond in “Inherit the Wind,” gets the last word.

“The visions the directors have for both shows are inventive and should be extremely interesting to the audience,” he says. “I hope they can accept or at least acknowledge that differing views are OK and that there may not be only one right answer — ‘Inherit the Wind’ — and that we really need to appreciate all that we are offered or have — ‘Our Town’.”


FAQ

‘Inherit the Wind’

WHEN — 8 p.m. July 23; 2 p.m. July 25; 8 p.m. July 29; 8 p.m. July 31; 8 p.m. Aug. 6 & 2 p.m. Aug. 8

‘Our Town’

WHEN — 8 p.m. July 24; 8 p.m. July 30; 2 p.m. Aug. 1; 8 p.m. Aug. 5; 8 p.m. Aug. 7

WHERE — Arkansas Public Theatre at the Victory in Rogers

COST — Tickets start at $10

INFO — 631-8988 or arkansaspublictheatre.org

Categories: Theater