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Infamous Trial Brought to the Stage

By Jamie McCrary

Inherit the Wind

Though based on the happenings nearly ninety years ago, director Gail Humphries Mardirosian thinks the issues addressed in Inherit the Wind are just as relevant today as when the play first debuted. “Inherit the Wind explores the idea of freedom of thought and looks at the role of the legal system in facilitating this freedom,” says Humphries Mardirosian. “I think the question raised in the play still holds true today: how do we fight for and continue to guarantee individual freedom? It seems that there are social circumstances that constantly challenge this right.”  

Running March 27-29 in the Harold and Sylvia Greenberg Theatre, Inherit the Wind is based on the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial,” an infamous court case that tested biology teacher John Scopes’ right to teach evolution in Tennessee public schools. Both the trial and the play examine the conflict between science and religion and freedom of speech and thought, ultimately questioning the extent to which one can think and debate freely. “The playwrights, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, believed that educated, scientifically aware people could still believe deeply in God,” Humphries Mardirosian says. “They did not intend Inherit the Wind to be seen as a battle between science and religion. They were making a case for Bertram Cates, the character inspired by John Scopes, to speak out as an individual and teach as he feels he should.” 

Humphries Mardirosian believes Inherit the Wind creates a space to further explore the issues raised in the Scopes Trial and hopes the play will inspire audiences to question their own thoughts and beliefs. “My predilection as a director is to select productions that challenge us to think about issues provoked through the theatre experience,” she says. “There is much to ponder in this production, and in my mind there is no clear answer or resolution. I think the ambiguity of the ending of this play triggers deep thinking and important questioning.”  

Though the production follows the text and directives of Lawrence and Lee’s script, Humphries Mardirosian enhances and builds upon the concept of the wind in the play, crafting it as a mystical and ethereal presence. One way she achieves this is by personifying the wind as a character, an addition entirely new and unique to this production. “The decision to include the wind as part of the cast has allowed me to enhance the style of magical realism, which I have embraced in this production,” says Humphries Mardirosian. “The wind is a pervasive, spiritual presence throughout the entire play. She never leaves the stage except at intermission. I think this existential presence also captures a mystical component that connects back to a core theme of the play in terms of individual spirituality.” 

Humphries Mardirosian also uses the sound of the wind to stress its elusive yet omnipresent nature. Utilizing both live and computer orchestrated recordings, sound designers generate dimensions of wind sounds ranging from embracing and enticing to torrential and terrifying, providing an auditory reminder of the wind’s constant presence. “I hope these directorial choices I have made create a haunting connection for the audience,” she says. “I am adding a different texture for a contemporary audience that I hope will taunt them. I think that these elements truly serve the text.”

Humphries Mardirosian recognizes that the themes and ideas presented in Inherit the Wind are not the easiest to face but wants the students in the production to grapple with them so they can grow as artists. “Inherit the Wind should foster a respect for the power of theater to deal with difficult subject matter and generate important dialogue,” she says. “I know that each of the students will mature as emerging artists, at whatever level they can. I want to push my students’ boundaries, as well as those of the audience.”  

She also hopes Inherit the Wind will be a catalyst for change, inspiring both the students in the play and audiences attending a production to take action. “There’s a quote from Vaclav Havel that motivates my life. He says, ‘None of us as one can change the world, but each of us must behave as if we can.’ I think that this ideal is present in the play, and I hope it empowers students and motivates the audience to do something,” Humphries Mardirosian says. “I believe in the power of the individual and ultimately a collective to effect change, and I want Inherit the Wind to inspire this belief in others, too.”