Highly Evolved 

The Rep starts the season on a strong note with a classic drama about an issue that just won't go away

The Rep starts the season on a strong note with a classic drama about an issue that just won't go away

Inherit the Wind

Presented by Tennessee Repertory Theatre

Through Sept. 25 at TPAC's Polk Theater

Fall is football season—a time when early success on the gridiron is to be viewed with cautious optimism. Such guarded hope might be wise when gauging the prospects for Tennessee Repertory Theatre's new season. But for now, the Rep has started strong with its first offering under the new leadership of artistic director David Alford.

Some may recall Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's Inherit the Wind as a slightly moth-eaten potboiler, and rightfully so. Though it is certainly well-crafted, it creaks a little with melodrama. Nonetheless, the Rep's current production at Polk Theater provides a charming portrait of small-town 1920s Tennessee and a consistently engaging tale of two great men squaring off in court, debating what is still today a hot-button issue.

Creationism vs. evolution—fascinating controversy that it is—is secondary here to simple humanity and heartfelt nostalgia. Gary Hoff's perfectly appointed set brings to life the fictional town of Hillsboro in equal measures of realism and colorful wistfulness. Trish Clark's period costumes are by turns sumptuous and folksy, and Chris Wilson bathes the entire production in artful lighting that sweeps broadly across the proscenium, zeroes in subtly on smaller scenes and periodically captures stage tableaux in frozen moments with flashes of light, creating the impression of old-time sepia-toned photographs.

With all the technical bases skillfully covered, director Alford sets out to relate a story that relies on courtroom dramatics for its fireworks, but is equally rooted in affecting character study. It's hugely successful theater: well-paced, humorous, uninhibitedly performed and wholly unafraid of its regionalism. If those are our narrow-minded Tennessee forebears onstage, then so be it.

It's a large cast, with many local community theater players in supporting roles. Non-union vets—some of whom are making their first-ever appearance on a Rep stage—include Linda Speir, Warren Gore, Jim Wright, Laura Skaug, Richard Daniel, Phil Perry-Dixon and Sam Whited, and all of them handle their roles quite effectively.

The principals are superb. Cecil Jones has the role of a lifetime as bombastic, Bible-thumping ex-presidential candidate Matthew Harrison Brady, who arrives to trumpet the townsfolks' cause in defense of the Good Book. Mark Cabus offers stiff competition as the cagey, pro-Darwin Chicago lawyer Henry Drummond. Matt Chiorini plays the natty Baltimore journalist E.K. Hornbeck with a devilish glee and Matthew Carlton hems and haws convincingly as the provincial judge who ultimately metes out some rather tepid justice. Pros Henry Haggard, Brian Webb Russell, Carol Ponder and Joe Keenan contribute their usual excellent work.

Finally, Anitra Brumagen, making her Rep debut as the preacher's daughter, and Pete Vann, as the schoolteacher who supports the theory of evolution, deftly provide the love interest.

But the biggest triumph here is Alford's. His work looks very comfortable in the large-canvas environment of the Polk. Tightly choreographed crowd scenes, which occasionally usher townies through the audience, are enlivened with Protestant hymns; intimate scenes are seamlessly interwoven into the play's larger structure; and Jones and Cabus are steered front and center at the appropriate times for maximum dramatic impact.

It may be too soon to place bets on the new team at the Rep, but they sure looked good in their opener.

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