I had no idea what to expect as I waited in the ticket line to see my first Stern College Dramatics Society (SCDS) production. All I knew was that the play revolved around the theme of every person’s freedom to teach and to learn—that was all it took to get my full attention.
I come from a background where heavy censorship was just an accepted part of life, even a way of life. My parents, who in 1989 immigrated from what was then the Soviet Union, often joked that the way we discussed certain topics at home (which I would never dream of bringing up at my extremely right-wing Jewish day school, and later, high school) reminded them of the Soviet-Russia duplicity they grew up with. They were raised with the idea that some conversations are kept for the kitchen and others for the classroom. But day in, day out hypocrisy never felt like much of a joking matter to me. I appreciated the fact that understanding censorship and discerning which topics were too controversial to be brought up and which could be introduced subtly in class was a valuable skill. But this didn’t help alleviate the smothering sense of being hypocritical. A teacher yearning to share knowledge with his students is ironically similar to a student wishing she could be open with her teachers. So I had no trouble relating to the plot of Inherit the Wind.
“Bertram Cates is not on trial, the right to think is on trial.” These words, spoken by Henry Drummond (Liorah Rubinstein), the introspective and passionate defender of the convicted teacher Bertram Cates (Ariela Greengart), perhaps capture the essence of the production more acutely than any other line, though the script astonishes with both its ongoing flow of witty repartee and abundance of sophisticated reflections. Beyond the themes of Darwinism, atheism, Creationism, or religiosity, Inherit the Wind demands the right to raise questions and to seek answers. Rivkie Reiter, stage manager of this production, said, “It’s an intriguing conglomerate of history and philosophy, with a quirky spin.” Yes, there is a factual account involved, and yes, controversies threatening our basic rights are battled over, but it’s all done with a classy eccentricity. “My favorite character is Elijah, the crazy man who believes he’s a prophet—it’s just such an unexpectedly lighthearted moment in the play,” Reiter remarked. Reiter also mentioned the affinity she had for the characters of Drummond and E.K. Hornbeck, and the conflict they represent. Reiter explained, “I identify strongly with Hornbeck’s snark, but am also really intrigued by Drummond—there’re just so many layers of character to unpack there.” Aliza Naiman superbly portrayed Hornbeck as a sarcastic and quick-witted reporter who comes to this trial with the purpose of reporting a scandal and perpetuating his own fame. In stark contrast to this is Drummond’s stirring transformation, which Rubinstein depicted with mastery. The unexpected death of William Harrison Brady (Racheli Shuraytz), the prosecutor who battles against the heretical teacher so vehemently, is a shocking curveball towards the very conclusion of the play which both challenges the actors and shocks the audience. Drummond begins to re-think his position in the trial, and, in fact, all of his beliefs. Meanwhile, Hornbeck, ever the cynic, declares—delivered with Naiman’s perfectly character-befitting brisk, high-pitched, slightly grating tone—that he’s off to write a story about “an atheist who believes in God.”
In the final scene, Cates—portrayed by Greengart as a thoughtful and deeply disillusioned character—exits the stage and leaves behind a copy of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” The last words of the play are Drummond’s call to Cates: “Wait, you left your…” After a moment of hesitation—during which tension hangs over the audience more heavily than at any other point during the play—holding the Bible in one hand and “On the Origin of Species” in the other, Drummond places both in his briefcase, the lights going out as he leaves the stage.
It seems ridiculous after such a conclusion to question the level of “controversy” in this production, or to contemplate how Inherit the Wind was approved. The spiritual and intellectual fates of the characters, Drummond in particular, and the audience’s interpretations as well, are left as open as Drummond’s last, unfinished sentence. Thus, the true theme of Inherit the Wind, perhaps, is the decision we all face: whether to skid through life superficially, unquestioningly accepting the doctrines (whether religious or secular) of others as fact, or to re-think our own beliefs as Drummond does.
Whatever my expectations had been, they were surpassed by far; I’m grateful to SCDS for this unbelievable experience—and for plenty of food for thought.