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"I am not an animal!" 

Picturing a morph from ape into man into cross, the art on Geva's program for Inherit the Wind speaks volumes about the raging debate over evolution. The play is loosely based on the1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, which took place in rural Dayton, Tennessee. The state's Butler Act forbade public schools from teaching any theory denying divine creation or that preached man was descendent from animals.

Once the act passed, the ACLU searched for a teacher who would buck the law, offering to defend the accused. The trial was set up. The town of Dayton, in rough economic shape, believed the publicity would bring fortune. So, 24-year-old John Scopes, a first-year teacher, was recruited as defendant.

In fact, Scopes couldn't remember if he had actually taught the chapter from Hunter's Civic Biology that endorsed Darwin's theory. But that wasn't going to stop this industrious little town. Brought in to defend Scopes, Clarence Darrow, an agnostic and arguably America's greatest legal mind, was pitted against prosecutor William Jennings Bryan, famous statesman and devout Christian.

Inherit the Wind premiered in 1955. Playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee were inspired by McCarthyism, but, with current dispute over the Patriot Act intensifying, the play is certainly relevant. And the debate between evolution and "intelligent design" has recently found its way into both school board meetings and a federal courtroom.

"There Ain't No Monkey in Me," a twangy Americana tune, opens the show, setting the field for battle. Teacher Bertram Cates, the accused, is ready to face this fight, proclaiming, "Man wasn't just stuck here like a geranium in a flower pot." His trial will bring famous politician and Bible scholar Matthew Harrison Brady to "defend the living truth of the scripture." Lucky for Cates, Henry Drummond, the fictionalized Darrow, is on his side.

Prosecutor Brady, played by John Pribnyl, is a godly man, fallible to the sins of gluttony and ego. Worshipped by the townspeople, he is greeted with pomp and grandeur. Defense attorney Drummond, played with brilliance by J.G. Hertzler, receives no such welcome. His entrance, up from the bowels of the stage, backlit, face cloaked in darkness, forces the audience to question whether he is of the devil or the hero come to save the day. Hertzler plays Drummond sarcastic and growling --- Archie Bunker in a courthouse --- but manages to make the character loveable.

Director Skip Greer creates a contradictory relationship between the men, contentious yet affectionate. In one interaction, Brady and Drummond lean into each other, literally head to head. Another scene sets the men on a bench. Brady, in a three-piece suit, is a contrast to the disheveled Drummond. As they discuss the changes they've seen throughout their friendship, the actors' faces and voices demonstrate their characters' fondness.

The play's humor comes thanks to Hertzler's timing and his interaction with James Michael Riley, playing oily reporter E.K. Hornbeck. Riley's interpretation is devilish, his lithe body, suited in shining gold, slips into nooks, making him a constant observer.

At the end of this performance, the drama overwhelms. After a trying experience, Brady stands at the verge of breakdown; Pribnyl brings his character to tears. His mind having failed him, Brady descends into desperation.

The play leans toward the liberal, vilifying Brady and implying he is ignorant and too caught up in religious fervor to realize that science must, inevitably, replace God. But the final stage picture leaves room for individual interpretation. Drummond stands with his back to the audience, gripping the arm of the witness stand. He turns to contemplate the Bible, weighing it against Darwin's Origin of the Species. He smacks the two together, throwing them into his briefcase. With this, the audience is left, without definitive answers.

You should go if you're want to see a historic drama infused with new significance --- one that leaves the raging evolution debate open to interpretation.

Inherit the Wind at the GevaTheatreCenter through April 2 | 75 Woodbury Boulevard | $13.50-$48.50 | 232-4382, www.gevatheatre.org

Speaking of Geva Theatre, Inherit The Wind

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