Courting Darwin 

Judging Inherit the Wind, plus Fiddler on the Roof opens at Playhouse.

Bennett Wood is a convincing human presence in the role of "Colonel" Drummond, the agnostic, myth-busting attorney in Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's seemingly timeless courtroom drama Inherit the Wind. "You may fly," he says to the jury, explaining that all knowledge comes at a price, "but the birds will lose their wonder, and the clouds will smell of gasoline." The line is particularly resonant in Theatre Memphis' current production: an interesting experiment that never quite gets off the ground.

Director Robert Hetherington has taken Inherit the Wind out of its traditional rural setting and staged it on a massive, unadorned set of stairs that have been painted to look like stone or concrete. It gives the play a decidedly urban flavor that is somehow at odds with the text and presents a backdrop so formal -- and so grand -- that the play's more intimate moments seem to vanish.

Based on the Scopes "monkey" trial, Inherit the Wind serves as a smackdown to overly literal theologians who can't reconcile God and science, while standing up for the primary building block of a free society -- a person's right to think whatever they choose to think. The Theatre Memphis production gets all the big ideas across, particularly the fact that this is truly a war without end. Unfortunately, with a few notable exceptions, its successes are muted by an environment that swallows its actors whole. Only Jerry Chipman, who plays an acerbic journalist based on H.L. Mencken, is large enough to escape the great gray gravity of the set and project his character all the way to the back row.

Like Wood with his character, Jim Palmer has connected with the human elements of Matthew Brady, a character based on archconservative and anti-evolutionist William Jennings Bryan. But Lawrence and Lee didn't write these roles for humans, they wrote them for giants, and therein lies the tragic flaw of this production. Hetherington has envisioned -- and rightly so -- a production of operatic proportions but delivered a realistic slice of Americana instead. When it cooks, Inherit the Wind is a dramatic hurricane, and although the production by Theatre Memphis is engaging, it fails to blow us helplessly around Lawrence and Lee's dark and dangerous ocean of ideas.

Through May 14th

Fiddling Around

Dave Landis isn't controversial ... finally.

Playhouse on the Square's jack-of-all-trades, Landis doesn't think playing the lead role in Fiddler on the Roof is strange at all. "Just because I directed the gay Jesus play and the gay baseball play," Landis says with a laugh, acknowledging that the current season has been something of a roller-coaster ride, from the quiet sentimentality of Tuesdays with Morrie through the experimental Corpus Christi to the iconic lead role of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof , one of the most frequently revived and best loved shows in the American musical theater.

"Fiddler has been a very grounding experience for me," Landis says. "I don't want to sound schmaltzy, but I feel like I've somehow come full circle because this is the first play I was in when I was in high school."

The versatile actor recalls his first role fondly, in a matter-of-fact way. "I was just singing in the chorus," Landis says. "I had no idea I'd be playing the lead 30 years later."

Based on a series of short stories by Ukranian Sholom Aleichem, Fiddler on the Roof is set in Russia during the pogroms -- violent expulsions of the Jews prior to the Russian Revolution and World War I. The musical is a bittersweet meditation on the importance of traditions and family at a time of emotional and cultural change. According to Landis, the current Playhouse production is an exercise in tradition directed by guest artist Gary John Larosa, who has directed and performed in Fiddler dozens of times and worked with Topol, the actor most closely associated with the role of Tevye.

"This isn't a remounting [of the original production]," Landis says, noting that Playhouse lacks the technical resources to pull off the remounting of a broadway production. But if the choreography is reminiscent of Jerome Robbins, it's not accidental.

"I suppose I was destined to play Tevye," Landis says, sounding as determined and put upon as his famously conflicted character. "I have a long, long history of playing old Jewish men. And I'm not even Jewish. [Memphis actress] Louise Levin says I should be given an honorary Jew certificate, but I'm not sure they actually make those. Do they?"

Through June 4th

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