Ed Asner Is in and out of Character in 'The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial'

Ed Asner will portray Williams Jenning Bryan in "The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial" tonight at George Mason University.
Ed Asner will portray Williams Jenning Bryan in "The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial" tonight at George Mason University. (By Annie Appel)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 2009

Ed Asner is a flaming lefty. Who knew?

I kid. The 79-year-old actor has long been known for his outspoken advocacy of pacifism, labor rights, free speech and other progressive -- sorry, the actor says he prefers the less namby-pamby label liberal -- causes.

So what is he doing playing William Jennings Bryan, the infamous attacker of Darwinism and evolution, in "The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial"? Isn't the villain of the play based on the 1925 Scopes trial Bryan, who famously locked horns with pro-evolution lawyer Clarence Darrow? And doesn't playing him go against all that Asner holds sacred, as a self-confessed liberal and "believer in the secrets that science unfolds, no matter where the chips may fall"?

"Oh, yeah," the actor said by phone from South Bend, Ind., while on tour with the play. Asner has been performing the role with L.A. Theatre Works across the country, off and on, since 2005. "But at the same time that I'm doing him," Asner continues, "I'm hoping to present a man who explains the reason why the people so adored him, why his body lay in state after his death, five days after the trial. To show a very good man gone astray."

Who better to show the lovable side -- or as Asner says, "the heart" -- of a declamatory demagogue like Bryan than the man still best known for playing the gruff-on-the-outside, mushy-on-the-inside Lou Grant, first on the sitcom "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (1970-77) and then on its spin-off, "Lou Grant" (1977-82)?

Plus, the gig's a total gas. "I'm having a great deal of joy and fun in presenting this fascinating character," Asner says. "It may never be anything akin to what the real William Jennings Bryan was, but the material -- that verbal material that has descended from him -- gives me a great appetite to strut and storm on stage." Presented in the style of a radio drama, and with a fair amount of speechifying, "Monkey" features 11 actors holding scripts, though Asner says, "We barely refer to them."

Yet as big a kick as the actor is getting out of portraying the creationist scenery-chewer, he has other, more urgent reasons for doing the show, and for doing it now, at a time when the country is, in Asner's words, "beset by the conflict between fundamentalism and science."

"Art must be the hammer," he says, bluntly paraphrasing playwright Bertolt Brecht, who once opined, "Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it."

"Our education has just gone into the toilet in this country," Asner says, before fulminating in a way that begins to sound a little bit like, well, a more liberal version of Bryan. "Having suffered, from the time of Reagan until now, with onslaughts against government daubing at improving the welfare of American citizens, and the education and health of American citizens, the anti-government forces have struck, perhaps, mortal blows to our society."

So wait. "The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial" is going to single-handedly fix what Asner sees as America's rightward tilt? Hardly, says the actor, who readily admits that most members of the audience will probably be fellow travelers. "Presentations such as this are worthy," Asner says, "if not to convert anybody, then at least to embolden the hearts and minds of the choir."

L.A. Theatre Works' producing director, Susan Loewenberg, agrees, describing the play's purpose as not to proselytize, but to give information -- information in the form of arguments that have never been so well expressed.

"We're giving people the opportunity," she says, "to hear some of the most interesting and intelligent and well-thought-out arguments -- on both sides -- that really stand for all time."

The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial George Mason Center for the Arts, 4400 University Dr., Fairfax. 888-945-2468. http://www.gmu.edu/cfa. Today at 8 p.m. $19-$38. A pre-performance discussion led by GMU theater professor Ken Elston begins 45 minutes before the performance.

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