HAZLETON — “Give me that old time religion,” the townspeople of little Hillsboro sing as they wait for the train. “It’s good enough for me.”
It’s also “good enough for Brady,” one man in the crowd shouts, just as the famous politician Matthew Harrison Brady arrives to champion their cause.
“He’s their hero who comes in on a white horse,” said Walter Mitchell, of Bear Creek Village, who will portray Brady when Pennsylvania Theatre of Performing Arts presents “Inherit the Wind,” Oct. 12 through 21 at the J.J. Ferrara Center. “And, the way they welcome him is like a hypodermic needle of excitement in his veins.”
The townspeople seem ecstatic to see Brady, an eloquent orator and three-time presidential candidate, who has come to Hillsboro to prosecute a science teacher named Bertram Cates for the crime — or sin, as they see it — of teaching evolution.
Cates is “an arrogant youth who has spoken out against the Revealed Word,” Brady thundered during a recent rehearsal, castigating non-believers as “these idolaters, these priests of ‘evil-ution.’ “
The character of Matthew Harrison Brady is based on William Jennings Bryan, who was the real-life prosecutor of real-life teacher John Thomas Scopes in the 1925 case that became known as “The Scopes Monkey Trial.”
Defending Scopes was the famous attorney Clarence Darrow, who is represented in the play by the character Henry Drummond.
“It’s a clash of titans,” said John Sherrick, of Nanticoke, who portrays Drummond. “It (The Scopes Monkey Trial) was one of the most important trials of the 20th century, along with Leopold and Loeb and the Nuremberg Trials.”
“People think of the 1920s as the ‘Roaring 20s,’ with the Great Gatsby and flappers, but there was a fundamentalist response to all that,” director Adam Randis said. “William Jennings Bryan believed evolution was a danger to America, that it would cause a breakdown in Christian morality.”
Despite his prosecution of a well-meaning teacher, audiences may well feel sympathy for Brady, the character based on Bryan.
“No character in the play is a villain,” Randis said. “The enemy is ignorance and nihilism.”
“People should learn to understand gray areas and listen to what the other side has to say,” said Tyler Kuchar, of Sugarloaf, who portrays Cates and, coincidentally, teaches science in the Hazleton Area School District.
“You could consider that maybe God created evolution,” Kuchar suggested.
But compromise seems hard to come by for many people in fictional, 1920s Hillsboro, which might remind audiences of today’s political divide.
“Without a question it seems prescient,” said Randis, the director. “There are parallels to today.”
Early in the play, as Brady and his wife accept the town’s welcome, they learn the Baltimore Herald has sent a reporter, who arrives spouting such terms as “Hillsboro Heretic” and “Buckle on the Bible Belt.” The newspaper has also arranged a champion defense attorney for Bertram Cates.
Mrs. Brady gasps at hearing that Drummond is on his way, and a local preacher, Jeremiah Brown, frightens some children by suggesting the agnostic attorney is “a creature of the devil.”
As for Brady, he is aware of but not dismayed by Drummond’s prowess in the courtroom.
“If the enemy sends its Goliath into battle, it magnifies our cause,” he tells the crowd, apparently envisioning himself as the young David who defeated the Philistine champion Goliath.
“The whole world will be watching our victory over Drummond,” he added, pausing before comparing himself to another hero who is said to have killed a dragon.
“If St. George had slain a dragonFLY,” he said dramatically, “who would remember him?”
Reach Mary Therese Biebel at 570-991-6109 or on Twitter @BiebelMT