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Unconventional Casting Works for Wind

Aldersgate’s "Monkey Trial" Play Solidly Presented

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(From left to right): Mark Lee Adams, Anna Penniman, Richard Isaacs and Rebecca Lenehan.

Director Roland Branford Gomez took an unconventional approach to casting the role based on the famous critic H. L. Menkin in the play, "Inherit the Wind," and it paid off handsomely. As a result, the play has three starring performances instead of the traditional two.

The two traditional starring roles, the ones played by Spencer Tracy and Frederick March in the 1960 movie version that is still watched today, are here played by Mark Lee Adams with his traditional fine feel for a sharp line and Lanny Slusher with a well-defined progression in his characterization from confidence to overconfidence and finally to emotionally crushing defeat. Surprisingly, Adams fails to find the same progression within his role which reduces his performance to a string of well-delivered one-liners.

It is the normally secondary role of Menkin-ish critic that is the real surprise of the evening, however. Gomez gives this role, which has been a fine piece for the likes of Tony Randall, Gene Kelly and Tony Award-winner Dennis O’Hare to a woman and the performance by Rebecca Lenehan in that traditionally male role amply justifies his choice.

Lenehan earned a Washington Area Theatre Community Honors (WATCH) award for the role of a middle-aged schoolteacher afraid of permanent spinsterhood in the Little Theatre of Alexandria’s "Picnic" last year. Here she delivers the acerbic barbs of the role with a nice level of understatement, quite a contrast to the over emoting evident the last time she worked on this stage under Gomez’ direction in "Hay Fever" two years ago.

"Inherit the Wind" is a thinly disguised historical drama of the time in 1926 when three-time Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan faced off as a prosecutor against legendary defense lawyer Charles Darrow in a trial of a Tennessee school teacher for violating state law and teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. The names were changed, not so much to protect the innocent as to free the authors to twist or bend the record for dramatic effect. For instance, the play has the triple-try Presidential candidate, renamed Matthew Harrison Brady, die immediately following being brought down by the crafty interrogation administered by the attorney named Henry Drummond. In reality, Bryan died five days after the trial ended.

The production in the Aldersgate Church hall is solid in more than just the three leading performers. There’s also a string of satisfying supporting performances in the roles of both the accused teacher and his girlfriend who is pressured into testifying against him. Richard Isaacs is convincing as the fearful defendant who is, nonetheless unwilling to sacrifice his principles to avoid punishment for violating what he sees as an indefensible statute, and Anna Penniman is likewise impressive as her character overcomes a sheltered background to take a principled stand.

One other performance deserves to be singled out. Fifth-grader James Woods, who impressed in two appearances at the Little Theatre of Alexandria over the last two years (he was the tantrum-throwing sickly boy in "The Secret Garden" and one of the Rogers kids in "The Will Rogers Follies" under Gomez’ direction, handles the role of the school child who opens the show tormenting his sister with the concept that mankind is descended from either worms or monkeys and, later, testifies in the trial. In both, his confident stage presence is of value to the production.

As is often the case with a show directed by Gomez, the emphasis here is on clarity of storytelling. The result does bog down a few times as the cast avoids rushing through the less important material but it does mean that there is little confusion as the evening proceeds.

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Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.