Toned-down `Inherit the Wind' remains controversial, timely

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Inherit the Wind NBC, Sunday, 9-11 p.m. Stars: Jason Robards, Kirk Douglas, Darren McGavin, Jean Simmons, Megan Follows. Writer: John Gay, based on the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Producer: Robert A. Papazian. Director: David Greene. The never-ending battle between creationists and evolutionists gets a familiar but timely airing with still another version of the 1955 Broadway play ``Inherit the Wind.'' In an era in which there are once again calls for prayer in schools and censored school curriculum, the sponsoring American Telephone & Telegraph is boldly reviving the controversial drama.

Although fictional names are used, the play concerns schoolteacher John Scopes, who was accused of teaching Darwin's then-outlawed evolutionary theories in Tennessee in 1925. Clarence Darrow defended Scopes; William Jennings Bryan prosecuted; H.L. Mencken covered for the Baltimore Sun.

In a 1960 movie version, director Stanley Kramer starred Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, and Gene Kelly as, respectively, Darrow, Bryan, and Mencken. An NBC television adaptation in 1955 starred Melvin Douglas, Ed Begley, and Murray Hamilton.

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This adaptation by John Gay tends to balance the scales so that, while the evolutionists still get the better of the arguments, fundamentalist Bryan emerges as a sincere, sympathetic, if misled human being. Douglas plays him with a kind of weary determination.

Darren McGavin makes a fine, sullen, caustic H.L. Mencken. Jean Simmons (as Mrs. Bryan) and Megan Follows (as Scopes's girlfriend) turn tiny parts into important character accents. But it is Jason Robards, as Darrow, who runs away with the drama, as he manages to make simplistic arguments of the creationists seem ridiculous, but then reveals his respect for their point of view, wrong as he believes it to be.

``Inherit the Wind'' is an old-fashioned drama of ideas, brought up to date by tempering some of its bitterness and thereby making it acceptable to all points of view. Unfortunately, in attempting to carefully balance the arguments, the drama has lost too much of its fervor. Despite its current relevance, what emerges is an intriguing, intellectualized lesson in tolerance - impeccably acted, authentically produced, but nevertheless a passionless period piece.

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