A new spin on a Bible-belt role

"Inherit the Wind" was written in the early '50s as a reaction to McCarthy-era threats to free speech. It's a fictionalized version of the 1925 Scopes "monkey trial" in Tennessee, which concerns the teaching of evolution in public schools.

But the play also can echo strongly as a put-down of Christianity, portraying it as outmoded in a modern age in which science will answer every question.

A 1960 film and two TV versions have paired famous actors - Spencer Tracy and Frederick March, Jason Robards and Kirk Douglas, Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott - as the two legal giants at the core of the drama: Henry Drummond (based on crusading lawyer Clarence Darrow) and Matthew Harrison Brady (based on devout Christian, social reformer, and presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan).

In a new production at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario, actor James Blendick takes a kinder approach than his cinematic predecessors to Brady, who prosecutes a young teacher for breaking a state law against the teaching of evolution.

To research his role, Blendick read transcripts of the real court case. Bryan "was not opposed to both these theories [evolution and creationism] being taught," he says. He wanted the Bryan-Brady character to be "a little more humane than what I thought the films were.... I think he was probably demonstrating more of a [real] Christian position by being a little more forgiving, as opposed to being fanatical."

Blendick wanted to give Brady "some credibility, because I find the play a bit biased. Darrow [Drummond] has all the cards, and Brady had very few."

At the end of the Stratford production, Drummond puts both the Bible and Darwin's "Origin of the Species" into his briefcase, indicating that he will keep and value both.

For the curtain call, Blendick and William Hutt, who plays Drummond, emerge together. On opening night, Hutt spontaneously put his arm around Blendick, and Blendick returned the gesture, as the crowd stood to roar equal approval of both performances.

It's been quite a change for Blendick, who earlier in his career spent a decade in Hollywood. "I was getting pigeonholed [into playing] heavies, bad guys," he says. "If I wasn't stabbing somebody, I was shooting somebody. If I wasn't shooting somebody, I was strangling somebody...."

"Then I got to the age of 45, and I thought, my goodness, I'm going to miss all these wonderful parts in the theater and in Shakespeare and the classics that I've geared myself to play.... I think I better go back to what I really want to do."

He's now in his 18th season at Stratford.

Write to entertainment@csps.com

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