When he was selected two years ago to direct the Port Tobacco Players' production of "Inherit the Wind," Justin McKean immediately envisioned a modern-day setting for the classic drama that brings together the conflicting arguments between evolutionists and creationists.
"There will never be a time that this is not a relevant story," said McKean, whose production opens tomorrow in La Plata, "because there will always be somebody with whom you disagree. This is what the play is about."
McKean cites conflicts as recent as a year ago in school systems in Ohio and Alabama, where the teaching of evolution was debated. In fact, the director -- who will be the new theater teacher at La Plata High School in the coming school year -- thinks it is "entirely possible" that the demand for the exclusion of teaching evolution in the classroom "could happen now, right here in La Plata, and people would vote for it."
He noted some of his 55 cast members believe the world is "just 6,000 years old." But he added with a smile, "They are not to the point that they see everyone else going to hell."
Although McKean could have directed the play true to script, portraying the actual 1925 trial of a teacher accused of violating the Butler Act, which restricted the teaching of evolution in state-funded schools, the director instead treats evolution and creation as mere "props" in "Inherit the Wind." His main focus is the townspeople and, specifically, how they react to something new and beyond their firm beliefs.
In this presidential election year, McKean said, "Inherit the Wind" seems particularly timeless.
"In politics, as with anything, there has to be a balance of thought," said McKean, who added that he spent more than 20 years personally "dealing" with creationism and evolution. "You read enough nonreligious stuff and you see some things just can't be true. When you dogmatically think you have God figured out, that's when religious rivalries and wars occur."
The message -- that anytime the dogmatism of a person or group of people leaves little or no room for the balance of critical thought -- is one that McKean hopes the audience will take away from "Inherit the Wind."
"The story is about us and what we do when we disagree about anything," McKean said. "What I'm hoping is that someone will come away from this feeling empowered to say what they think.
"We all need to feel comfortable speaking our minds, to talk about dissenting views. Until then, we are a nation of people that doesn't speak up," he said. "God gave us the ability to think and do things with those thoughts. It's what we're supposed to be able to do."
From the start of rehearsals, McKean told his cast that the townspeople -- not the six actors with most of the scripted lines in the play -- were in the spotlight. "The play is dead without the townspeople," McKean instructed the cast.
McKean allows the townspeople to become part of the court scene as they hiss and jeer at any person or words that don't fit their beliefs.
In the play, the townspeople are clearly on the side of creationism and against evolution, though none of them, except their school-age children, have been introduced to the science.
When defense witnesses -- "scientists here to prove what every enlightened community accepts" regarding evolution -- are denied the chance to testify, Henry Drummond (played by Tom Nuzzi), attorney for the accused teacher, puts the prosecuting attorney on the witness stand as an "expert" on God. The questioning that follows forces the townspeople to watch the beloved pro-creationism prosecutor, Matthew Harrison Brady (Tim Treanor), embarrassingly try to defend their beliefs.
Drummond, while holding up Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of the Species," asks Brady how he can be so sure of his responses when he has not even read anything about evolution. Subtle changes in some, but clearly not all, of the townspeople's actions and words begin as they listen to Drummond's arguments and Brady's repeated inability to offer much of a response beyond "because it's what I believe."
Drummond continues his volley of questions, in the process asserting that "the right to think is on trial here." When Drummond tells Brady that "the Bible is a good book, but not the only book," he has riled the prosecutor to a point of rambling, screaming and sermonizing that evokes laughter from Brady's supporters rather than the "amens" and "hallelujahs" they had earlier exulted at his words of reprobation for the teacher, evolution and critical thought.
Ultimately, and not surprisingly, teacher Bertram Cates is found guilty, but his penalty is merely a $100 fine.
Post-trial conversation finds Cates asking his attorney if he has won or lost the case. Drummond responds: "Millions will say you have won. You've helped the next guy; given someone the guts to [speak out]."
And McKean, the director, if he could, would have added these, his own closing thoughts, "Everyone needs to say what they think -- this is America. Every time someone does that, you help someone else speak up. And so it goes."
"Inherit the Wind," runs about 2 hours and 15 minutes with two 10-minute intermissions. Tomorrow and Saturday and July 16 and 17 at 8 p.m., Sunday and July 18 at 3 p.m. at the Charles County Government Building, 200 Baltimore St., La Plata.
Look for VIP cast members in the jury box including County Commissioners Al Smith (R-Waldorf), W. Daniel Mayer (R-La Plata) and Murray D. Levy (D-At Large); Del. W. Louis Hennessy (R); Circuit Court Clerk Rick Day; State Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D); and Del. Sally Y. Jameson (D).
Tickets are $12 for adults; seniors and students, $10. 301-932-6819.