Watching a rehearsal of “Inherit the Wind,” the play performed recently at the Peoria Riverfront Museum, was another reminder of the ability of live theater to get audiences — and cast members — to think.
Made into a movie in 1960 with Spencer Tracy and Fredric March, “Inherit the Wind” is based on the contentious courtroom battle between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan in 1925. The 1955 Broadway hit featured Paul Muni, Ed Begley and Tony Randall.
Those who gathered onstage at the museum, however, weren’t veteran actors or even community theater regulars. “I love working with people who are new to the experience,” said Edie Barnard, the director who paced about during the run-through of the play, suggesting stage movements while urging players to get more involved in their roles. “I found this cast very responsive. No one dropped out,” she said.
The idea for the show dates back to a discussion between Barnard and Federal Judge Jim Shadid at a Christmas party in December 2019. “Jim said that he always wanted to play the Clarence Darrow part. Then he asked me if I was interested in directing the play,” said Barnard, who operated her own theater for 15 years while living in Maine.
Shadid and Barnard decided to form the Peoria Area Reader’s Theater Ensemble for the show. Then the pandemic hit. Delays continued until this year when, supported by Peoria Riverfront Museum Director John Morris, performances were set up on Oct. 15-16 with proceeds benefitting Prairie State Legal Services.
“My family has a history of community involvement,” said Shadid, recalling when his dad, George Shadid, the former state senator and Peoria County sheriff who died in 2018, joined Ray Becker, Pete Vonachen and John Bearce on stage as card players in a local presentation of “The Odd Couple,” with Jack Steenrod and Mike Dentino playing Oscar and Felix at the Peoria Civic Center.
“Inherit the Wind,” of course, offers its own odd couple with Henry Drummond (Shadid) and Matthew Harrison Brady, played by Gene Pratt. In the fictionalized version of the Scopes Trial of 1925, Drummond is the Clarence Darrow character arguing for science, while William Jennings Bryan, the three-time presidential candidate, is the Bible-backing Brady.
“l got involved in this project because I live directly across the street from Edie,” said Pratt, who holds a Master’s degree in theater from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. “I’ve spent some time researching William Jennings Bryan and I think I kind of understand him. I’m not sure l will ever begin to portray his larger-than-life character, but it’s great fun trying.”
Talk about your type casting: Mike McCuskey, whose judicial career spanned 32 years (as a judge on the circuit, state appellate and federal courts), played Judge Merle. “I understand that the play is really about the Scopes trial in Tennessee in the 1920s when evolution and Charles Darwin were on trial in the South. I can understand how Judge Merle, in an election year, was worried about being re-elected and therefore was biased in favor of the local citizens who placed religion ahead of science,” he said.
McCuskey sees relevance in the play today. “Many believe that Trump won the election even though electoral science would prove that Biden was the winner based on the facts. In other words, emotions cloud reality. The play reminds the audience that fairness requires people to listen to both sides of a dispute,” he said.
Attorney Mitch Gilfillan, who played the defendant, said the play’s extended courtroom scenes made Peoria’s legal folks feel right at home. The cause was important, too. “Pro bono efforts are a vital part of our community. Some people need help and access to justice. If this play helps contribute towards that goal, we all win,” he said.
Phil Luciano, longtime local newspaper columnist now on the staff of Peoria Magazine, played reporter Hornbeck, a character based on H.L. Mencken, the Baltimore Sun scribe who covered the 1925 trial. “The Mencken-esque newspaper columnist is flippant, sarcastic and insolent. Thus, this role is a great stretch for me,” said Luciano, tongue firmly in cheek.
While other characters changed over the course of the play, “Not my guy,” said Luciano. “He pounds away, at typewriter and people, all the way through — seeking not necessarily the full truth, just the next story,” he said.
Kathryn Eissfeldt, who plays Rachel Brown, said “Inherit the Wind” has been close to her heart since she saw it at Cornstock as a teen. “The pro-science message was important then, but even more important now since the pandemic,” she said. Eissfeldt also taught an October course at the OLLI adult education program at Bradley University related to the play. “I led an in-depth study of Charles Darwin and the history of evolutionary biology,” she said.
‘The play reminds the audience that fairness requires people to listen to both sides of a dispute’
— Mike McCuskey
Conrad Stinnett, who played the bailiff, was gratified to have answered Edie Barnard’s call. As for being in the play, “it deals with issues that apply to contemporary society. Proceeds benefit a good cause. Plus, one gets to hang out with local heavy hitters like Judge Shadid and Phil Luciano,” he said.