Inherit the Wind

Burning Coal Theatre
Through Feb. 17

One hates to differ with Clarence Darrowor even his surrogate, Frank Drummond, the dogged attorney for the defense in the theatrical warhorse, Inherit the Wind. So perhaps, as he asserts, an idea is a better monument than a cathedral. It’s a noble sentiment, to be sure.

Still, you don’t go long in this line of business without noticing the high number of ideas that stay homeless in this cultureor, at best, the provisional shelter that others find. Whenever a worthy director, choreographer or live arts company cannot secure a very simple thinga place to go; a room where they can work; a venue where work may be dependably located and seen on an ongoing basisan idea of the world (and of our possibilities in it) goes missing.

It’s more than reason enough to celebrate, then, a rare occasion: the birthing of a promising new theater space. Ten seasons past its first local production, Burning Coal Theatre Company inaugurated its $1.2-million auditorium at the historic Murphy School last weekend in downtown Raleigh. The first production there: Inherit the Wind.

Before focusing on the production, a few words about the space, since regional theatergoers will inevitably be drawn there. Beyond the freshly painted white windows and the red brick façade of the old schoolhouse lies a two-story room that’s spacious but somehow still cozy, a theater whose warmth and intimacy, reinforced by a reddish-brown/dark-wood color scheme, is likely to benefit the shows it shelters.

Compared with other local venues, the Murphey School space fits in neatly among the area’s second-tier stages. A bit smaller than Raleigh Little Theatre’s Gaddy-Goodwin second stage, but noticeably larger than Duke’s Schaefer Theater, the room probably draws the closest spatial parallels with UNC’s Kenan Theater, site of the university’s Department of Dramatic Art’s main stage productions and Playmakers Rep’s artist-and-audience-dialogue PRC2 series.

In a room that only holds 175 in the round and 140 in the three-sided thrust configuration we saw on opening night, no seat’s a bad seatparticularly when no one’s more than four rows back from the stage. But as vantage points go, my early favorite is the balcony above, a single row of chairs arrayed across the sides and front of the playing area, almost literally on top of the action. (Actually, make that “surrounded by the action,” since director Jerome Davis made a point of using every entrance vector his new space could afford. Actors materialized from all corners of the ground floor and balcony during Inherit’s opening choral sequence.)

Still, that show’s selection to launch the new space raised more than a few eyebrows. Isn’t it a bit tameor too well knownfor a group whose first calling card put an IRA bomber and an unsuspecting audience both through a brutal police grilling in the regional premiere of Rat in the Skull? (The question is all the more invited since that play’s two principalsthe accomplished David Dossey and local hero David Hendersonreturned to take the twin leads in this production.)

Inherit may be a well-worn vehicle for liberal humanist soapboxing, but let’s not kid ourselves: In a year when presidential candidates are still interrogated on their views about evolution, its issues are alarmingly present-day.

It’s ironic that my biggest reservation with this show lies in the leads. Dossey and Henderson are among the strongest actors working in the region. But Darrow was 68 at the time of the Scopes trial; Bryan, 65. On opening night, the men playing their surrogates gave undeniably robust performances. Both also appeared somewhere between 10 and 20 years too young for their roles.

Although the role of Rachel, the daughter of the town’s hellfire-and-brimstone preacher, is obscured by the rhetorical thunder of the male protagonists, it is the most difficult part in the show. Her character has to make the farthest leap of any here from the beginning, literally leaving her father’s fear-based religion and her hometown at the end in a criminally underwritten part. Jenn Suchanec conveyed the doubts and fears in this thankless role with grace.

In a harrowing mid-show prayer meeting, Bob Galbraith’s work as the Rev. Jeremiah Brown runs the risk of going way over the top. But one thing alone made me believe it: The holy terrors in my own childhood churches looked and sounded like this. Judging from his expert staging, it seems that Davis himself knows them firsthand.

For my money, works like Inherit the Wind and Trestle at Pope Lick Creek fall into a category of shows that should be regularly revived. They not only confront us with what our country has looked like: They show what parts of it still do.


Playmakers Rep
Through Feb. 29

Carl Jung once famously said of the existence of God, “I don’t believeI know.” Still, for most, the handmaiden of faith is doubt. Perhaps that is more than appropriate. Maybe that individual quality alone has prevented even more open atrocities from happening than those that have been committed in the name of absolute knowledgeor absolute dogma. But what happens when inferential, indirect reasoning provides the only inkling of a possibly hidden atrocity?

John Patrick Shanley’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Doubt, bears more than passing resemblance to Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. In both works, the children are (possibly) being corrupted by (again, possibly) perfidious adults. In both, the evil that’s posited evades direct confirmation and observation. And in each of the texts, suspicion itself metastasizes until it all but consumes the investigator.

As a Catholic school principal in the Bronx, Julie Fishell’s Sister Aloysius is a forbidding nun decidedly of the old, pre-Vatican II school. But if she surprises the audience upon first observing, “In pursuit of wrongdoing one steps away from God,” by the end of this harrowing descent we have seen the proof firsthand.

Though Fishell’s Aloysius is a character-based concerto, under Drew Barr’s direction she does occasionally lean too hard on certain notes and volumes. Jeffrey Blair Cornell is positive and subtle as the parish priest Father Flynn; and the conflict between the two builds commendable force. Variable accents inconvenience them at times, along with supporting actors Janie Brookshire and Kathryn Hunter-Williams. Brookshire appeals as Sister James, a younger nun struggling to keep her ideals, while Hunter-Williams convinces as a schoolboy’s mother immersed in the inner-city realities of the early 1960s.

Horrific evidence has documented the sexual abuse visited upon children by Catholic clergy. For all that, little of its scope was known in the 1964 of Shanley’s script. Is this why only the coldest of comforts accompanies Aloysius at the end? Does Shanley’s final scene indicate that a faith of even ironclad convictions, on everything from penmanship and proper class conduct to the guilt of her superior, Father Flynn, remains spiritually and secularly insufficient? When it comes to the ultimate, are there some things we ultimately have to know?

E-mail Byron at