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Old county courtroom is stage for drama

by Linda Hiller, Staff Writer

It’s an old story, loosely based on a true event that happened 75 years ago.

The subject was evolution vs. creationism. Was there room for both subjects to be taught to students in a country still reeling and regrouping after its first world war?

Was the adoption of the Butler Act, restricting the teaching of evolution in state-funded schools in several Southern states, a fair law? Could it be challenged by trial in the middle of a sweltering summer in Dayton, Tenn., population 1,800?

The answers to those questions were only partially answered by the so-called “Scopes Monkey Trial” in July 1925, but the drama of that time lives on in the play, “Inherit the Wind,” written 30 years later by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee.

Although “Inherit the Wind” is based on the events of 75 years ago, the subject of evolution vs. creationism is still being hotly discussed and debated today. In August 1999, the Kansas Board of Education removed evolution as a topic for required teaching and testing in that state’s science curriculum. Other states have so far unsuccessfully challenged the teaching of evolution, and in Alabama, textbooks must have a sticker, “a controversial theory,” placed next to the mention of evolution.

– Be a part of history. The good news is, Carson Performing Arts and Western Nevada Performing Arts Center is bringing this play to the Carson Valley in a fitting, historic setting – old Douglas County Courthouse in Minden, registered with the National Register of Historic Places and opened in 1916.

“I love this,” said veteran theater director, actor and Carson High School drama teacher Karen Chandler as she watched her actors on the first day of rehearsal in the courthouse Monday evening. “I’ve wanted to do this play in a real courthouse ever since I did ‘Nuts’ 15 years ago in a Reno courthouse. It’s a challenge – we have to work with and around the great setting to do the true spirit of the piece.”

Producer Pat Josten, who has worked in theater in Carson City for 10 years, said the challenges of setting the historic play in the historic courthouse – lighting, a cramped stage and limited seating – are all worth the effort because of the room’s authentic ambience.

“We are so excited to be here,” she said. “The commissioners were most generous in letting us use the room, and I think the audience is going to love it. We’ve decided we’re not going to change sets and will just go with the natural setting because it is perfect.”

The courtroom, which usually hosts Douglas County commission meetings, has high ceilings bordered by crown molding, tall west-facing windows and ceiling fans that might have been spinning in July 1925.

Although Chandler said she will refrain from heating the room to make it sweltering like the days of the actual trial, the actors will have fans to use during the performance and the tickets, made by actor/teacher Susan Squires, are smaller fans to be used by audience members, seven of whom will be chosen (voluntarily) to be in the jury.

– Area actors involved. The cast includes residents of Carson City and outlying areas, including several from Douglas County – Michon and Curtis Deem, Jessica Rao, Carmen Roland and veteran actor and Gardnerville Ranchos resident Pat Hardy, who plays Henry Drummond, based on the Clarence Darrow character who defended Scopes.

“It’s great to have theater here so close to home,” Hardy said. “I played this same character 15 years ago and still remember a few of the lines. It’s what I love about acting – getting to say great lines as interesting characters.”

The cast also includes Tom Strekal as Matthew Harrison Brady (the Bryan character), Jeremy Zutter as Scopes and Dave Josten as the Rev. Brown. Other cast members are Monte Fast, John Gillie, Jon Josten, Nick Josten, Cheryl Laird, Liz Mitchell, Tracie Moore, Byron Morgan, Dianna Paul, Susan Squires, and Sharon Miller.

Brian Hall is stage manager.

– The case. “Inherit the Wind” is based on the trial of John T. Scopes, a 24-year-old teacher who was tried for teaching evolution in his classroom.

To challenge the constitutionality of the Butler Act, which was law in several Southern states, the American Civil Liberties Union sued and imported two of the country’s most famous litigators to town to prosecute. Clarence Darrow, a brilliant lawyer and flashy character, was Scopes’ defense lawyer, fighting against what he called “fundamentalist ignorance,” and William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential candidate and former Secretary of State to President Woodrow Wilson, was the prosecutor, fighting against teaching evolution in the schools.

More than 200 reporters, including H.L. Mencken of the Baltimore Evening Sun, descended on the small Tennessee town that summer of 1925, and for the first time in American history, news of a trial was broadcast by radio.

In Chandler’s updated version, the proceedings are broadcast over the Internet.

“We changed a few things to update it,” Chandler said. “But I think the authors would be glad to know we had to change very little. It is still a timely piece.”

The case ended in Bryan’s favor, and he died five days later of a heart attack. One year later, the outcome of the trial was overturned on a technicality. In 1968, Scopes was vindicated by the United States Supreme Court.

A movie, starring Spencer Tracy as Drummond, Frederic March as Brady and Gene Kelly as Hornbeck, the reporter, was made in 1960.

This production of “Inherit the Wind” is a Northern Nevada Ensemble Theatre Co. production and is presented by permission from Dramatists Play Service.

Play dates are this weekend only, May 11-14, with performances at 7:30 p.m. all four nights and a 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday and Sunday, May 13-14.

Admission is $6 for students and seniors and $8 for general admission. Because of the limited seating, reservations are recommended, although available tickets will be for sale at the door for each performance.

The courthouse is located at 1616 8th St. in Minden.

For information and reservations, call 887-0438.